After Satella LeCoulte's son was born, Winry and the Elrics stayed an extra night without anyone questioning the matter. The doctor came and went, leaving Winry weak-kneed with relief instead of exhaustion, and Mr. Ridel said, "It's too late to go all the way back to town tonight. You'll stay for dinner, right?" Mrs. Satella was asleep, and Mr. Dominic was cooing over his new grandson and didn't bother to grumble, so that was that.
After dinner (which, despite Mr. Ridel's protestations, was the best stew Winry'd had anywhere but home), she took over the washing-up. Al promised to alchemize the dishes dry at the end. Winry briefly considered making Ed dry them with an actual dishcloth on general principles, but she still felt bad about reading his watch, and anyway Ed was awful at kitchen chores. He'd leave most of the dishes damp and try to find an excuse to leave halfway through. In the end she decided it was more satisfying to do it without him anyway, making herself useful with Paninya perched on the counter beside her. Paninya swung her automail legs and chattered about Rush Valley, expounding on neighborhoods Winry'd never heard of and people Winry'd never met, and she just snickered proudly when Winry broke off in the middle of a question to marvel at the smooth motion of the left knee despite the carbine taking up half the joint. They left the stack of wet dishes for Al, and snuck into Satella's room to look at baby Avery sleeping in his nest of blankets.
Winry couldn't remember the last time she'd felt so proud as when she looked at that tiny, healthy face. Ed's automail was an old satisfaction, and it was compounded by exasperation at all the repairs she'd had to do, even if she was proud of her work there too. Soon she'd have more automail to be proud of, she hoped, not just one masterwork that Granny'd helped with anyway -- but this was new, this little life she'd helped bring into the world, and her guesses and split-second decisions that had turned out to be all right.
Bending over the crib, she felt warm inside, and quietly grown up.
That night, she and Paninya shared the big spare bed. Ed slept in the room that would be little Avery's when he was older, and no one pointed out that he was still short enough to fit in the child-sized bed. Al had waved his leather-gloved hands in ill-concealed panic and promised hastily that he didn't need much sleep, but Mr. Ridel had spread blankets across the couch anyway, even as he apologized that it wasn't really big enough for a lad Al's size. Winry wondered briefly if Al would try to make the couch look slept-on. Al was conscientious, especially about people's feelings, but he was also a terrible liar. Then she abandoned the question in favor of sleep.
She woke up chilly to the sound of a newborn's reedy cries, and was unsurprised to see Paninya peacefully slumbering in a cocoon of all the blankets. Winry considered her odds of successfully getting some of them back, decided they were low, and went for it anyway.
This could be my new home, she thought to herself fifteen minutes later, having wrested the smallest of the blankets back from Paninya (who'd mumbled, clutched all of them closer, and never once woken up.) Avery had long since quieted, presumably reassured by a midnight feeding. Rush Valley could be my home. For a while, anyway.
She curled up inside the warmth of that thought like another blanket, and fell back asleep.
* * * * *
The morning dawned hot and clear, to the soundtrack of a fussy Avery. Winry thought wistfully about spending another day eating Ridel LeCoulte's cooking and catching glimpses of Mr. Dominic's workshop instead of trudging all that sun-scorched way back to town, and reluctantly put the thought away. She'd already won more than she'd hoped. An apprenticeship in that town -- where, even if the food was worse, she wouldn't be underfoot and kept awake by somebody else's newborn -- and the promise of visiting here every so often, and her own independence. It was time to be getting on with it.
And those two brothers had their own plans in Dublith. They needed to be getting on, too.
Besides, she comforted herself, she'd probably see Ed in another month for more maintenance, with everything he did to her poor automail. Maybe three weeks.
"I've never been an apprentice," she confided to the canyon view through the window, but mostly to Paninya yawning her way into her big lace-up boots behind her. "I've only ever learned from Granny. She taught me everything I know, except the things I figured out myself or from journals. I don't even know what it's like, not really."
"Aw, you'll be fine." She could hear Paninya stretching, in the way her voice got more drawly at the end of the last word, and she half-smiled at the window. It was nice to have new friends. "Mr. Dominic is great, but he's the grumpiest mechanic around. You got around him faster that I ever have!"
"I'm used to grumpy people," Winry laughed, and Paninya snickered with her. Paninya'd already seen enough of Ed to know who she was talking about -- though she didn't know Granny in a mood, nor old Mr. Ulrich down the road, nor, well, everyone else Winry wasn't going to think about right now, or she'd start getting homesick already for Resembool. That was no way to start out a new chapter of her life.
"See? You're gonna be awesome!"
"Yeah, but..." Winry trailed off, trying to find a way to voice her worries. She had a counter-argument for every one -- she was skilled, she was smart, she'd work hard and she'd keep pushing for those boys and for herself -- but still there was that nagging but in the back of her mind. But, but, but. What if she couldn't do it? What if it didn't work out?
Avery wailed again, hungry and fussy and energetically alive, and Winry found her spine pulling a little straighter as something solidified inside her.
"You're right," she said firmly, and turned around to give Paninya a big smile. "I'm gonna work hard, and I'm gonna be just fine."
* * * * *
Mr. Dominic had promised to introduce her to a good mechanic, and he'd dropped the name Garfiel and a 'he' over last night's dinner, but he'd said nothing more about this person. Winry'd tried, but she couldn't recall meeting any Garfiel in town. That didn't mean much -- Rush Valley had passed for Winry in a haze of faces less distinctive than the shining automail fixed to their bodies or burnished in store windows, until Ed's watch had been stolen -- but it meant one more unknown looming in her future. She would have liked to be able to picture a face, and to know if he looked harsh or kind, relaxed or stern.
She'd also have liked to know if Mr. Dominic planned to accompany them back to town, or just to give her an address and a letter, but he said nothing about that, either, and she couldn't quite work up the nerve to ask. He'd already had to be talked into this much; she didn't think he'd change his mind, but what if he did?
But when they shouldered their bags and waved goodbye to the younger LeCoultes -- Satella leaning into her husband's supportive arm, but flushed and happy with her son blinking sleepily against her shoulder -- and Winry looked around to finally ask Mr. Dominic about that introduction he'd barely spoken of, he came around the corner of the house with his own empty pack on his back.
"I've got to buy some more screws from Tommy Javits anyway," he informed his son, who Winry suspected was trying to hide a smile. "Might as well make sure those kids don't fall off the mountain while I'm at it, I guess."
Ed snorted quietly, Paninya snickered, and Al chirped, "Thank you, Mr. LeCoulte!" Winry was pretty sure Al was trying to hide a smile too -- which made no sense if you didn't know Al, because he didn't have a face that could smile anyway, but Al was like that. She just bowed hastily and chimed in with Al, and knew everyone knew what they were thanking him for.
She expected Mr. Dominic's presence, and his bristle-browed scowl, to quell conversation on the way down, but she was reckoning without Ed and Paninya. They started back to bickering almost immediately, with Al trying to play peacemaker, and before Winry knew it Ed was being such an idiot that she had to tell him so, and then it was almost like being at home again. Except for the sun, of course, baking the ground and the back of Winry's neck -- but even that was easier this time, and it wasn't just because they were heading mostly downhill. She knew where they were going this time, and it wasn't a mysterious engineer's lonely house where a pickpocket might or might not be working; it was towards Rush Valley, the automail heartland, and towards her apprenticeship there, and her new home.
* * * * *
ATELIER Garfiel read the sign, in delicate blue letters on crisp white. There was a rose painted next to it, and swirls -- nothing like the plain rough wood outside Rockbell Automail. "You kids wait here," Mr. Dominic declared, and stumped towards the cluster of shoppers obscuring most of the open storefront. Winry bit her lip when his back was turned.
Paninya had bounded away ten minutes ago, with a jaunty wave and a cackled "Catch you later, apprentice girl!" Winry was pretty sure she'd seen somebody still mad about being robbed. In any case, it meant that she was standing her with just Ed and Al, in the middle of a bustling Rush Valley sidewalk, wondering what Mr. Dominic was saying indoors.
Ed rubbed the back of his neck with his right hand. He was sweating, but still wearing his gloves and red coat. Winry knew it was because the sun-heated metal would have been miserably uncomfortable against the flesh of his shoulder otherwise. Though Ed might also have been trying to avoid the gaze of eager mechanics. "Aw, don't worry, Winry," he breezed. "That old grump just doesn't want you to hear him talking about how awesome you are."
Winry smiled at him, grateful even through her nervousness. "Maybe," she said.
"Definitely! Right, Al?"
"Yeah!" Al nodded for emphasis, his topknot bobbing. "I'm sure he is. He's seen what a great job you did with Brother's automail."
"You got it, Al." Ed rotated his metal arm for emphasis, and Winry listened automatically for any sound of grinding or rubbing in the joint before he struck a determined pose. "I'll even let this guy poke and prod at me if he wants proof! He'll see you know what you're doing."
They would probably have continued in this vein indefinitely, but that was when Mr. Dominic emerged from the knot of desultory customers. Winry tried not to look unsettled by this speed, before she was distracted by the man following him out. He was nearly as distinctive-looking as Major Armstrong, even though he was barely as tall as Mr. Dominic: he wore a tight striped shirt and suspenders, and his hair was slicked into a tiny curl on top of his head. His lashes were long and mascara'd, and his lips a bright red cupids-bow she'd only seen on city women and magazine models. For an instant, she forgot the butterflies in her stomach in favor of the urge to stare.
But he had mechanic's calluses and burn scars on his hands and corded muscles in his arms, and Mr. Dominic thought he was a good engineer, and that was all that mattered. Besides, hadn't Granny Pinako raised her right? Winry, feeling a sheepish country bumpkin yet again, bowed hastily. "Mr. Garfiel, I'm Winry Rockbell."
"You're on your own now, girl," Mr. Dominic grunted, but he clapped her roughly on the shoulder as he passed. Winry, heartened by this unexpected display of human feeling, stammered out her thanks to his retreating back.
"Nice to meet you," Mr. Garfiel smiled, and offered her a broad hand. His nails were painted, Winry saw, a pale petal pink that was chipped and scarred by automail work. The handshake was light and brief, but Winry could feel the strength lurking in those work-roughened fingers. "I understand you're already an engineer, Miss Rockbell?"
"Oh --" Winry could feel her face heating, and fought the urge to bow again. She could brag about Rockbell automail to strangers, but that was a matter of family pride; she could yell at the Elrics to appreciate her, but that was Ed and Al, and they hardly counted as anything but more family. This was a strange adult, and she had to make herself sound skilled enough that he'd agree to teach her. "I -- yes, I mean, my grandmother taught me. Pinako Rockbell. We live in Resembool, in the East, and, um, there aren't really any other automail engineers around, so we had to--"
Ed snorted loudly, and Winry was startled into breaking off her sentence to glare at him. "What she means, Mr. Garfiel," he contributed, "is that Winry here is the best automail engineer in East." He stepped forward, and Winry was torn between annoyance and envy at how he could speak to adults like that, as cocky as if he were a grown-up too instead of a pint-sized teenager. "She made my arm and my leg when she was only a kid, she and Granny, and she's repaired and resized it at least a hundred times since then." Al, looming earnestly behind him, was nodding along with every word.
"Only because you keep breaking it!" Winry clenched her fists, feeling annoyance take over. It was a comfortingly familiar feeling. "I wouldn't have to work half so hard if you'd take proper care of it!" She pressed her lips together, and turned back to Mr. Garfiel. "But, Mr. Garfiel, what I mean is that I've never had anybody to learn from but Granny and automail journals. I know I could learn so much more from a real teacher in Rush Valley. I'd be honored if you'd take me on as an apprentice. I promise I'm a hard worker, I'd earn my keep, so please, would you consider it?"
Mr. Garfiel's eyes twinkled at her. "My shop's pretty big for one person," he told her, and Winry pulled in a breath of hope. "It'd be nice to have a good worker around the place to help out. Why don't you come inside and have some tea, and I'll take a look at your work on this cute young man?" He winked.
Ed went bright red, and Al jerked in startlement, and Winry laughed aloud. "Thank you, Mr. Garfiel! We'd be glad to!"
* * * * *
There was, of course, the inevitable confusion about Al's 'full-body prosthetic,' complicated by the fact that no one had ever been able to think of a plausible lie for Al's armor that either Elric could tell with a straight face. But enough hasty subject-changing usually served to at least distract people, and Mr. Garfiel accepted their gabbled explanation about alchemy training with a fluttery, distracted gesture, and turned back to examining the rivets in Ed's automail fingers.
Winry worried, every time anyone asked something like that, what they'd guessed, and what they wondered. The taboo was a sword hanging over the Elrics' heads, even with Ed in the military, or maybe especially then -- what would happen to them if people knew? But she couldn't fret long about something so vague, not when Mr. Garfiel was peering at Ed's joints and asking her rapid questions about the percentage of chromium, of iron, the forging technique used here, the way she'd shortened the standard humeral armature to match Ed's size. Winry clasped her hands, pressing her knees together to keep her posture straight and grown-up, and answered as clearly and straightforwardly as she could, even when Ed was yelling in the background about short beans.
It wasn't hard, because this was her business. This had been her business since she was ten, and all her life she'd grown up with medical textbooks and automail surrounding her. She was Winry Rockbell of Rockbell Automail. But all the same, there was that tight cold knot in the pit of her stomach, and it clenched every time Mr. Garfiel asked her a question she couldn't answer confidently. There was so much she could still learn. He had to understand that, right?
And then at last, while he was prodding at Ed's toes and Ed was slouching on a crate and trying not to look sour, Mr. Garfiel said, "Ooh, you'll have to show me how you got the shock absorbers so flexible in the arch there. But we'll get you working with lighter alloys, Winry honey, while you're here."
Winry clapped her hands over her mouth to stifle an undignified whoop, and bowed hastily instead, while Ed's face lit up the way it only did when he'd forgotten to care if he looked young.
Mr. Garfiel just grinned down at Ed's foot, and Winry knew that Paninya had been right. Everything was going to be just fine.
* * * * *
"Well," Ed breezed, kicking a rock idly across the dusty street, "uh... I guess we'll head on to Dublith now, huh Al?"
Al's topknot bobbed as he glanced between the two of them. Winry could barely picture Al's own face in its half-apologetic peacemaker expression any more; what she always thought of first, now, was this hesitant metal posture, and big gloved hands half-raised. "Brother, we should make sure Winry's okay staying and everything first..."
"I'm okay," she promised. "Mr. Garfiel's great, and I've got the whole back room to myself and everything! And you brothers need to go talk to your teacher, right?"
Ed gulped, and Al twitched with a very faint clang.
"Um," said Al.
"You know, Al," Ed said, on his heels, "maybe we should keep Winry company for a day or two..."
If Winry didn't know them as well as she did, she might have been worried, but she remembered seeing this exact look when they didn't want to tell Granny that Al had broken Mr. Hartshorn's fence by trying to sit on it as armor. "You'd better buy your tickets if you're going to catch this train," she pointed out.
Ed's face firmed. "I guess," he said. "Yeah." He planted his hands on his hips, in a rather lackluster version of his usual Determined Pose. "Come on, Al. Let's go face Teacher."
"...Yeah." Al's voice didn't exactly manage enthusiasm, but he trailed after Ed and Winry towards the ticket office.
* * * * *
Winry had been completely okay with staying, up until this moment when she found herself waving goodbye to the Elrics from the platform of a new train station instead of the old familiar Resembool one, with no friendly Miss Harriet behind the ticket counter. Ed was shouting something indistinct over the train's chugging engine, something about lighter automail and growing taller. For a craven instant, she wanted to yell back no, come back, stick around for a while, never mind I want to go home -- but if she wasn't ready to stand on her own now, when would she be? The Elric boys had been traveling alone for years, anyway, and she refused to let Ed show her up.
She bit her lip, and waved until she was sure they couldn't see her any more.
She needed to call Granny, she thought. But no, not now; she'd burst into tears if she heard Granny's voice now. Which was stupid, stupid and childish, and wasn't she fifteen years old and an engineer? But all the same, she knew it was true, by the way the backs of her eyes stung at the very thought of Granny smoking on the porch step.
Mr. Garfiel had told her to take the afternoon to wander around town to get settled. (What he'd actually said, right after he showed her her little bedroom with its heavy scarred rafters and the whitewashing tidily layered over slightly battered walls, was "Oh, sweetie, you and those boys of yours just go take a look at your new town. I'll make sure there's dinner for you whenever you come in, and we'll talk details tomorrow.") All right, then; that was what she'd do.
She hadn't gotten more than two blocks on before there was a flash of motion and then a thump behind her, and Winry spun around to see Paninya, crouched on the sidewalk and grinning at her. Her camouflage pants were still torn to shreds, and the gorgeous automail of her shins was clear to see underneath.
"Heard you got yourself stuck with Garfiel," Paninya smirked, and bounded to her feet.
Winry opened her mouth to say something indignant in Mr. Garfiel's defense, about his kindness and the lovely automail she'd seen lying around his workshop, when she registered the approving tone. "I'm here to stay," she agreed instead, and found herself grinning back.
"Then come on." Paninya elbowed her. "You've gotta meet all the cool people! I'll let you off easy today, you'll only meet half of them, but you can buy me coffee to celebrate."
A moment ago, she'd been stifling tears at the thought of staying here -- she was happy, she was, but home was so far away suddenly -- but now Paninya was here and snickering, and Winry remembered that she had a friend in Rush Valley after all. And she could see Paninya's automail, more beautiful than anything she'd ever made, and that was another reminder.
She elbowed Paninya back. "You're honest now, right?" she said. "Buy your own coffee!"
* * * * *
In her bed in Mr. Garfiel's tiny back room that night, Winry folded her arms behind her head. The ceiling was an indistinct swathe of white plaster; in the dark, she couldn't see the scorch marks she knew marred the roof's timbers. She stared up at them, thinking about the war that must have marked this house. Thinking about the people who had lost their limbs in war, and about burned houses, and about Ed asleep and probably drooling on a train chugging its way south.
"I'm gonna learn everything I can," she told the ceiling. "I'll learn to make automail just as good as Mr. Dominic's. Maybe even better."
Tomorrow, Mr. Garfiel had promised to set her up with a corner of the workshop, and let her organize it to fit herself, before he gave her her first project. Tomorrow afternoon, she'd call Granny, maybe when Mr. Garfiel was out of the workshop so that if she cried she wouldn't have to feel too stupid about it. And maybe a day or two after that, she'd go see the LeCoultes again. She could visit the baby, and let them know she was all right, and look at Mr. Dominic's workshop and pretend she still thought he was as mean and cranky as he liked to think. Maybe she'd buy a poster or two to put up in her room tomorrow, too; she was pretty sure Mr. Garfiel wouldn't mind. And Paninya could show her where to shop.
But right now, Winry rolled over, tucked her arm beneath the unfamiliar pillow, and closed her eyes.