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Delayed Promises

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"What's the first thing you're going to do once you get your body back?"

Alphonse Elric nearly jumped at the question, his metal body rattling as he turned to look his longtime friend in the eye. Well, as close as a glowing eye socket in an empty helmet could look eye-to-eye, that is. "Um…" he stammered, blushing on the inside. For once, the youngest Elric was glad the armor didn't react to his emotions; he didn't want the blonde sitting next to him to notice how uncomfortable he was feeling.

Lately, the two young teenagers had been spending a lot of time together. Edward and Alphonse had decided to visit their hometown of Resembool while Ed was between assignments, and Al suspected his older brother was simply humoring his late…what was the word his brother used?...infatuation with Winry Rockbell. The older Elric brother had been spending a lot of his time in front of their mother's grave, and Al? Al was soaking up the presence of another important young woman in his life - and one very much alive, at that.

For the past couple of weeks, they'd been sitting and talking together, almost getting to know each other all over again. Al learned all about Winry's latest automail plans and inventions, like the oven she put together. He also began to take note of her particular habits, too, like how she always looked out the window before taking up her silverware to eat dinner, or how she fiddled with some loose parts of metal in her pocket instead of twirling her hair if she was feeling antsy. He learned to distinguish her real smiles from her fake ones, and he also knew she took a wrench to bed with her, like how any normal girl would sleep with a stuffed animal.

He liked to hear about her life; it was so normal. He didn't want Winry to know of the dangerous lifestyle Edward and he led, so he kept his mouth shut, figuratively speaking, and made sure his neighborhood crush stayed on the topic of herself. What new automail was she designing? Did she ever see anyone else from their childhood? How was Den's latest adventure? Al could listen to her talk for hours.

Of course, there were times when he was expected to do his fair share of talking. So he'd tell her the same old story at least twice a day of how Edward had gotten into a fight with the Colonel, and how Lieutenant Hawkeye had threatened both alchemists bodily harm if they didn't stop yelling. Winry would always catch on, though, and say, "But what about you? How are you holding up?" And Al would mumble and say he found a new stray cat, or read a new book, or -anything, rather, than tell her the truth.

The truth that he was getting impatient, despite everything. The truth that he was losing hope in his brother's abilities, though he'd stand by him 'til the end. The truth that - the reason that - he so desperately wanted his flesh body was because of the girl currently sitting next to him on the Rockbell porch. And the truth that he felt he'd never have that luxury, to hold Winry to himself and offer her the world. All he could offer was an empty metal shell, and how would that look on any boyfriend application? "Yeah, I don't have a body and we couldn't do anything except sit and talk, but I know I've fallen in love with you so will you go out with me? Pretty please, Winry?" That'd go over real smooth.

But Al also noticed the little things that gave him hope, like how Winry never hesitated to touch him or hold onto his arm - like he did have flesh that was worth hanging onto - and how she never shied away from the armor but embraced him as he was. Like he was whole. That's what made him love her so much. There was also the fact that she was radiant as always, with that long blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes, and that she was strong, enough to work with machines as she did, and smart, enough to make her own mechanical creations, and skilled, and tough, and sweet, at the same time, and she could hold her own and she was just about perfect in every way.

At least, perfect enough for him.

"Well?" Winry pressed, grinning up at him with that smile Al loved oh-so-much. If the warmth his soul was feeling was any indication, that was, because Al certainly couldn't sweat in nervousness or feel his heart race from looking at her. His body just wasn't capable of such things at the time.

What was the question again? Oh! Right. The first thing he'd do once he got his body back…tough question, but Al knew exactly what he'd do. And for once, he wasn't shy enough to hold back his exact thoughts. "I'm going to come straight home to you," he promised, making Winry gasp a bit at his words before adding the shocking extra: "and kiss you."

-+-

It wasn't Edward whom Winry worried about too much when her boys left home again; it was Al. Ed could take care of himself and though he might break under the pressure eventually, he knew he had to survive long enough to get Al's body back. Ed was great at presenting a strong front to the world, and that got him by. For the most part. No, it was Al's sensitive soul she worried about, going out into the world that was so different from sheltered Resembool.

The military was no place for such a caring, sweet individual. And Winry knew Al technically wasn't tied to the place, that he was only in dangerous places because of Edward, but it still made her mad. She wanted Al to be safe - she wanted both of her friends to be safe. Though if she were fair, Al's promise had her second-guessing their platonic relationship and thinking…what if

Even as youngsters, the Elric brothers fought and scuffled while a self-satisfied Winry stood proudly over them, clutching her doll. It was nice to be wanted. It felt wonderful, having both childhood friends wanting to grow up and marry her. And even way back when, Al was the more gentle soul.

But still he fought - he got down dirty and fought - just for her.

After a few months of jittery waiting on Winry's part, a knock on the Rockbell door went unnoticed for several minutes. When old Pinako finally threw open the door and got a good look at what was causing that timid, repetitive sound, she choked on her pipe and fell to her knees, calling her granddaughter's name.

When Winry reached the door, she about had a similar reaction - though without inhaling tobacco into her lungs. "A-A-AL?" she gasped, trembling and white-faced. The boy standing on her doorstep couldn't possibly be Alphonse Elric. He was simply too young. But he had…he had Al's old face, and hair, and shining eyes, and shy smile…

This couldn't be the boy who had promised to return to her side and kiss her!

The young automail mechanic stared at this new (little, too young, her mind insisted) boy before letting the tears roll down her cheeks unashamedly. "You can't be Al…" she whispered, a tortured sob freeing itself from her throat as she bolted upstairs to hide. The truth, staring after her, crumpled in the living room one story below.

He didn't have any memories. Okay, so that wasn't completely true. He didn't have any of the important memories. Like of the failed human transmutation, or of the military missions, or even of his brother for God's sake! Nor did he remember his promise to her. And even if he had, Winry could not kiss a ten year old. Not like she wanted to kiss a fifteen year old Al.

So his age was a setback. Who cared? Alphonse Elric was in the flesh. He had always been extremely sensitive and caring, so who was to say he still wouldn't turn out like that? She hoped that part of his personality never changed. She didn't want him to turn into a copy of Edward.

It wasn't that she didn't love Edward, she did, but Al was special. It was his unique sense of care and gentleness that set him apart from the rest of the world, and Winry felt herself drawn to Al because of that.

So even if it took a few years, this Al might still keep his promise and fall in love with her all over again. He had a new chance at life and if Winry played her cards right, everything would turn out fine in the end. The problem was that it was so hard to wait. She'd been waiting for his body back, and now she had to wait for his memories to return and for Al to age a few years. It seemed she was always waiting, waiting and watching and hoping.

Or what if this new Al changed completely? What if he didn't grow up again to fall in love with her? What if he met someone new in the time it took to grow up? What if he thought the age difference was too wide now that he'd been made four to five years younger?

What hurt the most was that they treated one another as siblings now, and only one party felt the loss.

Little by little, the adrenaline of hope faded from the blonde teenager's system. Counting on Al to remember…it wouldn't work…

Winry was tired of wasting her life staring across the horizon, waiting and waiting and hoping for the Elric brothers to come through. Now, not only had Alphonse been reverted to a preteen, but Edward had disappeared into thin air. And as deeply upset as she was about that fact, Al's innocent questions pushed her over the edge.

"Did you love him? My brother, I mean. Don't worry, Winry! I promise I'll bring him back to you! And then you two can be together, and the three of us will make a perfect team!"

Half the time, Winry wanted to yell back, "We don't need Edward to complete us!" But she knew it wasn't true. They did need Edward; he was part of their circle. But still…She and Al could be a "team" all their own…

And now Alphonse believed she was in love with Edward.

How was she supposed to rectify that misunderstanding? "Actually, Al, you're the one I dream of being with. I don't care if you're a ten year old at the moment, I will have you!" Um, no. Even if Winry was rather prone to be forceful sometimes, never towards Al. Never.

So Winry simply sighed and didn't answer, further proving Al's "she's in love with my brother" theory. What did it matter what Al thought at the time? He didn't remember his promise, so there was no point in reminding him. That would just confuse the poor boy, and that was the last thing Winry wanted to do.

But as the days rolled by - with days turning into weeks, weeks to months, months to years, with time rolling onwards and picking up more precious seconds like some huge, growing snowball tumbling downwards into a pit of despair - Winry shut off the part of herself that desperately hoped for Al's - her Al's - conscious revival. It was getting too difficult, watching the now-teen Alphonse Elric try his best to imitate what old stories depicted Edward to be.

This was the last thing she wanted to witness: Al trying his best to emulate a brother he couldn't remember.

The blonde automail mechanic remembered the day when she'd brought Al's lunch tray to his room, stopping short and almost dropping the sandwiches and milk to the floor when she recognized her young friend wearing Ed's old clothes. Seeing Al in that red coat almost broke her.

"Yo, Winry," Al had greeted, shooting her a large, half-crazed grin that reminded her all too much of the long-lost Fullmetal Alchemist. The expression seemed way too out-of-place on Al's face, too gaudy and only real in the sense of forced effort. He should have offered up a shy, heartfelt smile and said, "Hello, Winry, how are you doing today?" He shouldn't have said "yo." That was an Edward-phrase if she ever heard one.

The blonde half expected Al to turn down the milk; she didn't bother to hide the elation she felt when Al downed the glass.

"What?" he asked, noticing her expression. And there was that adorable, confused expression on his face, so open and honest-to-God Al that Winry only smiled and turned away. If she could always only have Al be Al, and not have Al be Ed. Because that just wasn't working out.

-+-

The promise had all but faded from memory until the day Edward returned in the midst of flying aircraft and raining fire.

Winry had the odd hope - which was odd, because hadn't she given up on hope? - that Edward would somehow provide the answers to Al's missing memories. Edward always found a way around the impossible, or maybe just seeing his brother would spark something inside Al and then everything could go back to the way it was supposed to be.

And then maybe Al would stop trying to be Ed, and just focus on being Al. Because there certainly was no need for two Edwards, and surely Al would realize that?

The sudden change - from a heart beating too fast, then halting to what seemed like a complete stop - was not a sensation Winry ever wanted to feel again. The moment she realized that Ed had gone back, back to that other world with no alchemy and flying machines, and that Al had undeniably followed his older brother into danger again

It felt like Edward had made a side-trip to his home-world only to collect Alphonse and be off again, out of reach for all eternity. Her boys had left her again, and this time there was no way she could follow. There really was no way she could have Al, at all; there was no wishing he'd grow to love her again for the simple fact that he wasn't physically there.

Alphonse had always chosen Edward over her, and suddenly the realization was so staggering that it brought Winry to her knees. Of course the Elric brothers always put each other first. But for once, just once, she'd have liked to be considered the top priority. She missed those days in their childhood when Ed and Al had squabbled for her hand. Maybe it was only a game, maybe it had no importance in the here and now, but at least that memory was something to hold onto.

Because there was no hope left, with both Ed and Al gone to a place she couldn't reach. And with the now-Corporal Mustang destroying the doorway - the Gate, the alchemists called it - there was definitely no way to be reunited with her friends. Her place was in Resembool, with Granny Pinako and Den and her automail.

She'd trade it all to be with Alphonse and Edward again.

-+-

It was another couple years before the Rockbell porch held any unusual visitors. During that time, Winry resigned herself to make the most of her life and continue honing her skill in automail repair-work. Both Pinako and Den were growing rather old for their respective ages, but the three of them, Winry included, continued to live in that yellow house in Resembool.

Before anybody could answer the door, it burst open on its own accord and Alphonse Elric swept Winry Rockbell into his arms and kissed her enough to make up for the years of waiting.