A/N: This was written for the FMA Secret Santa Exchange over on Tumblr, and I figure why not ring in the new year by cross-posting it? My giftee handed me a blank slate labeled EdWin and here we are some ten thousand words later. I hope I did Winry justice, and I hope you all enjoy this fic as much as I did writing it! Title comes from TV on the Radio's "Province."
You're jittery the whole way home from the train station, that really good kind of shaky that feels like you've swallowed a mouthful of sunlight. Even now that you're home you've got a grin you can't banish, delight caught in your throat, a giddiness you force yourself to squash so you don't embarrass yourself dancing around the house. A good thing too, since Mr. Boyle is there to have his leg tuned and he's a hopeless gossip.
Granny's not fooled for a second, of course. She gives you a sly look even as she keeps up a steady conversation about the goings-on in the town proper. It's a look that promises a Conversation, you realize with a slight hiccup of alarm. You latch onto the thought of a bracing cup of tea, busying yourself with the kettle. It'll give your hands something to do until your pulse settles, as well as keep your back to Granny's searching gaze.
Mr. Boyle doesn't need anything major done, just a connecting wire in need of replacement and a sharp-tongued scolding to go along with the faint spots of rust starting to gather between his toes. He apologizes, making the usual meek excuses any customer does—as if he hasn't had the leg fifteen years, honestly, he ought to know better—and Granny mock-threatens to charge him out the nose. She never does, of course, but somehow no one's ever caught on to that bluff yet. The Rockbell charm at work.
Once Mr. Boyle's been sorted and shooed out the door (with a stern order to stop by for a drink the next time he feels like traipsing out in the fields after a good rain), Granny looks at you with a knowing quirk of one eyebrow.
"So," she grins around her pipe. "He managed to work up the nerve after all."
You only just hear her over the running water, rinsing out your mug from breakfast. "What?"
"Ed," she says with peculiar, almost gleeful, emphasis. "He asked you to marry him."
You nearly drop your mug, splashing warm water all over the sleeve of your hoodie. Ed's hoodie. He'd insisted you keep it, ever since he'd gotten just a hair too broad in the shoulders to wear it comfortably. He'd said that he liked how you looked in it too, more than once, always with a stammer and a faint touch of pink to his sun-browned face that all but compelled you to kiss him just to make him blush more. You shove the thought aside, gawking over your shoulder. "You knew?"
She settles back down at the kitchen table, where the late morning light is best. A hand lays half-assembled, wires in a tidy blue-and-red fan, all the necessary screws ordered in a compartmented tray. "Alphonse owes me two thousand cenz. He was positive Ed wouldn't have the guts to propose before he left."
"You bet on it?"
Granny laughs. "That idiot's been tongue-tied over it for ages."
"Y-you're unbelievable!" You turn back to the sink, yanking a dish towel off the drying rack to mop up the mess you've made.
"So? Did he make a fool of himself on the platform? Did he get down on bended knee and stammer out some half-baked line to woo you senseless?"
You grimace. "It wasn't that bad…."
Granny shakes her head, that particular smirk on her face that she wears only when she can't believe how stupid all these young folk are. "And now he's swanned off west on another crazy adventure without so much as a whisper of when we can expect to see him next. Oh, he's just like his father."
You don't freeze at that, no. But you do hesitate, standing there by the stove, a warm wall of heat on your left and a long stretch of sunlight touching your sandaled feet. You look down at the damp mug in your hands, swallowing. Your nails are in need of a trim, you note, pushing back the heavy thought of gone, gone, gone again with nonsense. Black grease is all but tattooed into the calluses on your fingers, skin chapped no matter how much lotion you use.
You've always known Ed and Al were both incapable of sitting still. Not when they were kids and not now either; maybe not for a long while yet. They're both meant to travel, to see more, do more, achieve and witness and break and repair and better before they finish growing into the men they'll one day settle down as. Ed—
Ed wants to spend his life with you, share your lives together (percentages measured out on your rough fingers, and he'd looked at you like you were the best thing he'd ever laid eyes on and then laughed). You want the same thing, feeling that flutter of sunlight again in your belly at the abstract, almost overwhelming thought of forever being shared with him.
But before that, before a lifetime can be spent as two halves of one whole, he'll be gone. It's what he needs, what he's meant to do. You wouldn't—could never—begrudge him the want and the need to travel. To research and to learn, to find a way to give eleven back for every ten he receives. To make alchemy something he can love openly again, without that sting he's had to hide around Al (and you too, but you've always been good at reading his face, have always known when something was wrong even if he's too stubborn to tell you what).
You're young still. You're both still so incredibly, terribly young. Forever is a lifetime that doesn't have to start only when he decides to come back for good. Forever is when one life can be shared without regret.
You look up, meet Granny's understanding eyes set deep in her lined face.
"Ed's been over the moon for you for years," she says kindly. "He'll come back."
"Of course he will," you say, steeling your spine as the kettle starts to whistle. "He knows I'd brain him if he let anyone else near my automail."
You're restless, and it's all the more apparent now that the boys aren't around to fill the house with bickering and laughter. You catch yourself staring out the windows, at the horizon glimpsed between the mountain peaks that cradle this sleepy green valley. You hover by the radio, draw out conversations with each rare out-of-towner, wringing every drop of news from beyond Resembool you can. You want to know more, see more. You itch for new sights and strange places.
When you'd been younger—and it's funny, how far off younger seems now, like it's a place you used to live that's gone, burned down and overgrown—you couldn't imagine a life away from here. Whenever you'd thought about the future, you always pictured it as the life you lived then. The only change you ever conceded to was that you would grow older. In your imagination it was always the cusp of summer, bright sunlight pouring into every room and a persistent, easy comfort left unbruised by strife or worry. A lifetime measured out in glittering piles of swarf and the come-and-go white scars on your hands. It was a good life you used to picture; one anyone would crave to keep.
Now though? Now you've traveled across far more of Amestris than you ever imagined you would. You've been up and down the eastern border—you wonder how Rosé is doing, what Liore looks like now. You've been as far north as Fort Briggs—you ought to write a letter to Neil and Johanna too, now that you think about it, to see if they've come up with any new designs that would do well farther south. And you've spent so much time in the south, in Rush Valley, your home away from home.
It's a slow realization, as warm and as sugar-sweet as syrup on fresh pancakes, when you realize that as restless as you've grown, you're homesick for the boisterous chaos of that rough-and-tumble city even more. The holy land of automail, where no two shops offer the same designs, where people go at their most broken and desperate and from where they can walk away straight-backed and gleaming.
You'd finished your apprenticeship under Mr. Garfiel last year, just before Al's seventeenth birthday. You'd hurried back to Resembool for the party and haven't been back since. There were phone calls from him and Paninya of course, and several more from your customers hoping you'd be back down in time for their next maintenance check. You'd meant to go sooner, even just to visit, but time slipped away from you. Two months have nearly turned into six, and you sit in the workroom you've called your own since you were ten and find yourself wanting desert dust in the creases of your skin and a blazing summer sun burning your shoulders pink and freckled.
Granny's unsurprised when you bring up the idea of traveling down there over dinner. She rolls her eyes, fond and exasperated. "You're as bad as the boys."
You're never sure if you should be offended or not when you get compared to them. "What does that mean?"
"You've gotten a taste for travel," she says, nodding her head like you've confirmed something. "Good. A woman your age ought to see as much as she can before settling down."
"It's just for a visit," you protest, then shrink under her quelling look.
"You're young, Winry. Have a little fun while you've got nothing to hold you back. Lord knows I did, and I was almost twice your age before I met your grandfather."
You sit back in your chair—the same chair you've sat at for meals as far back as you can remember- and consider your plate, an easier thing to look at than Granny's shrewd eyes. She's right. You know she's right. You love Resembool, you love this house, you love Granny and everything she's ever taught you. But Resembool is a place to settle, quiet and unhurried. Families grow here—are broken here too, but that is an old pain that's had its sharp edges rubbed smooth by time and patience and a determination to not let your grief outweigh your happiness. Resembool and Rockbell Automail are steady and sure things.
You are young. Is it so wrong, to want a little novelty?
So less than a month after Al went east and Ed went west, you travel south again. Back to Rush Valley, your home away from home. Paninya's at the train station to greet you with a grin and a paper bag full of zeppole from the street vendor on Eighth Street. You squeal and hug her 'til she squeaks uncle, then you both make your way to Atelier Garfiel, catching up over all the little things that never made it into your phone calls. Her repair business really kicked off while you've been gone, and she's even coaxed a few other madcap daredevils to help out with the roofing jobs.
By the time Mr. Garfiel's familiar pink and yellow storefront comes into view, your fingers are sticky with powdered sugar and grease and you're regretting the thin cardigan you'd kept on even after stepping off the train. Compounded with the general funk that comes with traveling halfway across the country, you're in no fit state to greet the half-dozen customers loitering in the shopfront. You wave at them all and promise to take a good look at their automail later on, and yes, you plan on staying for at least a few weeks, and yes, of course you're happy to see them all too.
Mr. Garfiel's no better than the lot of them, embracing you tightly even as you try to protest that you're way too gross for hugs!
"Nonsense," he tuts, letting you go to get a better look at you. Honestly, it's like you've been gone for years instead of a few months. "Oh, Winry darling, you're twice as pretty as when you left. But go on and get washed up. Your room's just as you left it."
Of course that isn't exactly true, because he spruced it up in anticipation of your visit. It's freshly scrubbed and aired out, with a shallow decorative bowl of potpourri on the sill gently scenting the air. It's a perfect meeting of familiar comforts organized in the considerate tidiness of an inn. There's the daisy-yellow sheets and matching summer quilt you'd bought with money from your first commission here. There's the circular rag rug under the desk, a bright splash of colors against the scuffed floorboards. There's the desk itself, bought from the used furniture store two blocks over, its pitted surface a storyboard of long nights hard at work stretching back years. The pine dresser had been Mr. Garfiel's, who'd been glad to have an excuse to buy a newer one. These are all things you were fine with leaving behind, yet you're happy to see again all the same.
"Glad to be back?" Paninya asks, rocking on her heels, hands in her pockets like she's going to pull out fistfuls of confetti and yell surprise! You eye her suspiciously, but decide a shower takes priority to her scheming.
"Definitely," you say, hefting your suitcase onto the end of the bed to dig out fresh clothes and your toiletry bag. Knowing Mr. Garfiel, there's a whole shelf of fresh towels in the bathroom.
Paninya taps out a rhythm on the doorframe, scratches at her port seams through her trousers, sighs, crosses her arms and then uncrosses them again. "So-o-o—"
"Spit it out, 'Ninya."
She bites her lip, sheepish. "Did Ed, maybe, possibly, ask you something before he left?"
You pause mid-dig for a pair of shorts to give her another look. Her grin widens. Ed's proposal was definitely something you hadn't mentioned over the phone, because—because it's too absurd, too huge, too abstractly life-changing. It's something to be dealt with later, when Ed comes home again. So how the hell does she already know?
"Did everyone know he was going to propose but me?"
"Probably!" She laughs when you make a face. "Okay, well probably not everyone. Al snuck down for an afternoon a few weeks before he headed to Xing, told me and Mr. G."
"Of course he did," you groan. Al's not just a gossip, he's a shameless busybody. He's going to get an earful as soon as you've got an address you can pitch an angry—oh alright, not angry, just exasperated—letter at.
Paninya grabs your hands and bounces up and down, as giddy as you were the day Ed left. "So? Did you say yes? What am I saying, of course you said yes, you've been making goo-goo eyes at each for years, oh man, Mr. G's gonna flip his lid when you tell 'im—"
"Oh my god," you laugh, pulling your hands free to playfully shove her. "You're terrible!"
"Terribly excited," she corrects, tapping your nose and dancing out of reach. "When's the wedding? You're gonna have one, right?"
"I—oh." You feel your face grow hot.
A wedding. It was one thing for Ed to propose. That's—that's just a promise, that's just wanting to be together (your face burns at that giddy, dizzying idea). But a wedding?
"Oh my god," you say again, and it comes out faint. "I didn't even think about that."
"Of course you didn't," Paninya sighs. She won't stop grinning. She's getting way too much delight out of all this. "It's okay. You just fret at Mr. G a little and he'll call in every favor he's got to make sure it's perfect. You'll have a wedding right out of a fashion magazine."
That startles a curse worthy of Ed at his most bristling out of you, your toiletry bag dropping to the floor. Paninya, traitor that she is, just laughs at your distress.
"Aw, c'mon, it'll be great! You'll look amazing in a white dress, and I'll even polish up my legs for the occasion."
"Your legs?" You parrot blankly.
"Well sure! You gotta have a maid of honor, right?" Her grin finally shrinks some, gains a hesitant curve. "I mean, if that's what you'd want. I just, I kinda figured you'd want me to be there, but if it'd be weird—"
"No," you interrupt, and mean it completely. It's a shaky breath you take, not quite panicked but alarmed and a little overwhelmed at the idea of marriage. "I wouldn't ask anybody else."
Oh god, you think even as Paninya sags with over-exaggerated relief, a wedding.
Mr. Garfiel, as expected, is over the moon when you finally cave to his nudging and hinting and elbowing and admit that yes, Ed proposed. He asks a hundred questions you haven't even thought about; the wedding, yes, but also about rings and where the two of you might want to settle down and what your plans are for Rockbell Automail and if you've already got names picked out for children—
You don't lose your appetite at the thought of children. But your stomach does tie itself up in knots, because that's just one more hugely enormous and terrifying concept that's been the kind of thing you read about in books or watched in films. It's something you'd never really thought could apply to your own life.
Paninya, bless her, realizes you're overwhelmed long before you gather the courage to change the subject. She starts up an absurd story about one of her underlings getting his automail hand caught in a chain link fence while someone's enormous dog tried to bite him in half. Mr. Garfiel's in stitches by the end of it and even you're laughing more than you're panicking. Under the table her hand finds yours and gives it a reassuring squeeze.
After that Mr. Garfiel doesn't bombard you with questions, just natters on excitedly about It now and then. That's how you've come to think of the wedding; inevitable and intimidating and amazing and exciting—and Ed's not here to panic with you over it. Mr. Garfiel goes on at length about everything from invitations to catering, how many people will attend, your dress, whether Ed will wear a white suit to match your dress or not, the best time of year for an outdoor event, which of course depends on where you want to have it, and on and on and—
And mostly you say, "I think I'll wait for Ed to come back before deciding anything," which is enough for Mr. Garfiel to pout a little before conceding the sense of that. Then it's back to work again.
And it is work, grueling for the heat and the dust and the competing stores hawking their wares, all the the chaos that Resembool lacks and that you'd missed dearly. You go to bed each night exhausted—or after a couple all-nighters, collapse at some odd hour with black streaks of grease on your skin in whatever cool, dark corner you can find. You always wake up back on your bed, curled up in a spare blanket to save your sheets from grime and a glass of water on the nightstand. More than once Mr. Garfiel tuts like a mother hen and reminds you not to work so hard.
"It's how we Rockbells work best," you always remind him.
Granny calls up the shop one afternoon to tell you a letter from Ed's arrived. You're surprised, but not as surprised as you might have been once. She asks if you want her to forward it along, but you tell her to save the postage. You'll come home again instead.
"Postage is cheaper than a train ticket," Granny notes dryly.
"I want to come home," you tell her. Rush Valley is wonderful, but you don't like leaving Granny alone for too long. She'd never admit it in a hundred years, but you know she gets lonely up on that hill with just Den and the rare customer for company.
Granny's not fooled, of course. It'll be a cold day in Hell before you ever pull the wool over her eyes. "Nonsense. You stay down there and leech as many tricks out of the competition as you can. And see about assisting in a few more outfittings, won't you? Your steady hands have a funny habit of running off when you pick up a bone cutter."
The first outfitting you ever helped with wasn't Ed's, but it's always the first one that springs to mind. He'd been the youngest you'd ever seen on an operating table. Paninya had been younger when Mr. Dominic outfitted her, and you'd read about even younger patients. Still, you flinch from the memories.
Ed's skinny frame wracked with agony, driving titanium struts into the bone and muscle of your best friend, his blood on your smock, Al's burning eyes two pinpoints of unearthly light in the dark hallway. You still think about how hard Ed tried not to cry when Al was in the same room, and you remember how tightly Al curled up in corners to be smaller than he was, the scrape and clank of his armor intrusively loud. You remember being afraid of Al, and of Ed, and of the brittle expression Granny had worn for a long time after she'd gone to see what the boys had done to hurt themselves so terribly.
You think about Ed weeping and hating himself for doing something else Al could no longer do.
Outfittings don't upset you, like it does a lot of mechanics. You understand the benefit of being the one to design and install the port your automail will attach to, to being the physical therapist and the surgeon along with the engineer and the mechanic. But it's still an undertaking. It's still grueling. It still leaves you strung-out and weary in ways the clean and sharp lines of automail never do.
"Yeah," you say. Shaky hands aren't any good to anyone. "I'll be sure to schedule some time with the nearby clinic."
"Good girl," Granny says, her voice warm with pride.
Ed's letter isn't a letter, conventionally speaking. It's photographs, a whole stack of them with dates and locations penned on the back of each in his tidy hand. The first was taken in West City just two days after he'd left Resembool, where he must have bought the camera. It's a shot of the city skyline at sunset, the cloudy sky lavender and orange, every window pane a bright square of gold.
Most of the pictures are like that, his focus on the places instead of the people. Rooftops and early morning streets, the rust-colored plateaus that dominate western Amestris, crumbling cathedrals and overgrown gardens, a bright red motorcycle. He meandered some, toeing but not yet crossing the border. There's a marketplace in Pendleton, old ladies laughing uproariously in the background of an enormous spread of wicker baskets full of nuts and dried fruits. There's the front of a bookstore in Wellesley, its front door open and enough sunlight pouring in to show the literal tunnel of books stretching on out of sight inside.
The last picture is dated two weeks ago. It's of Ed, taken by someone else, his coat folded over his arm and a sheepish grin on his face. He's standing in front of a wrought-iron fence outside Milos' railway station, his suitcase at his feet. On the back he'd written: On my way.
It might be presumptive, but you end up buying a new photo album—with a bright red cover, because it makes you laugh. You put all his photographs inside it, copying out what he'd written onto cream-colored labels. Except for the last photograph. That one you put in a frame and keep on your desk, never mind the teasing from Paninya and Mr. Garfiel. A warmth thrills through you to see his face every day, to know he asked a stranger to take that picture just so he could send it to you.
A summer storm rolls in and the whole city shuts down for the afternoon, no one inclined to go out when the streets have washed away. Paninya had gone up to visit the LeCoultes when the sky had only just begun to darken; she'll probably remain there through the worst of it. You'd joked that it was a relief that Satella isn't pregnant again—though goodness, it's astonishing to think little Benny is going to be three already! You'll have to make him something, or at least bake something for the occasion. You've gotten pretty good at cake decorating, and wouldn't mind an excuse to show off even if the birthday boy will be more interested in eating it than admiring it.
You and Mr. Garfiel work companionably together, the phonograph playing loud enough to be heard over the sheets of rain lashing against the roller doors.
"You know," he meanders after a few hours of on-and-off chatter, leveling a thoughtful look at you, "I've been thinking."
"Careful," you tease, and he puts a hand to chest in mock-offense.
"Cruel! Seriously, Winry dear, I'm going somewhere with this."
"Okay, okay. What's on your mind?"
"Business has really boomed since old Dominic sent you my way," he says. "My little shop's doing worlds better than I ever imagined it would, especially in a place as saturated with mechanics as this litter box of a city."
"I'm glad I've been some help here. You've taught me so much."
"I could say the same! Your eastern-make designs have been a breath of fresh air; really, just what we needed here." He sets his screwdriver down, knitting his coarse fingers together and resting his chin atop his knuckles. He looks at you shrewdly now, considering you like you're a competitor's hot new design he dearly wants to dismantle. Some people might find that kind of expression off-putting; you though, you understand that feeling completely. It's not an aggressive look, simply excited.
"What is it?" You ask.
"Have you considered where you might want to settle down?"
This isn't the first time he's asked this, but something in the way he asks now makes you pause. You set your cable cutter down in favor of reaching for your coffee mug. It's room temperature now, but you drink anyway. "I think that's something else I should wait to talk with Ed about."
"Oh, certainly," Mr. Garfiel nods, "but that boy's a bookworm and a scrapper, and both of those can be done just about anywhere. Automail goes where the people are, and all the big names are right here in Rush Valley."
"That's true, but—"
"I only bring it up because dear Atticus next door has been thinking about closing up the shop in a year or two," he says quickly. "Arthritis, you know."
You think of Granny's hands, gnarled by age and a lifetime of hard work, and the days her mouth is a white slash in her lined face yet she still works as if nothing in the world could ever dare pain her. "Yeah, I know."
"And he's such an old-fashioned stick in the mud—" Which is Mr. Garfiel's polite way of saying Atticus Brower lost his sense of humor on the same battlefield that took his leg, or at least that's the running joke. "—No one's going to miss his clunky designs, but he does have quite a nice shop, don't you think?"
She narrows her eyes. "Are you suggesting I buy Mr. Brower's shop from him?"
"Well if you don't I'll have to," Mr. Garfiel pouts. "I just don't have the room to work comfortably with the extra orders you've brought in, and I could really use a few more patient beds for out-of-towners—"
"I don't have that kind of money," you interrupt.
"Neither do I," he admits glibly. "Doesn't that boy of yours still get a tidy paycheck from the military?"
Ed had been medically separated at the rank equivalent of a lieutenant colonel, and while he's out of the country you and Granny have been depositing those tidy paychecks for him. You know exactly how much the military still pays him, know it's a fraction of what they'd paid him when they'd still called him Fullmetal. It's still an awful lot of money.
"I wouldn't ask him," you start to say, and Mr. Garfiel silences you with an amused glower.
"You won't have to," he says. "Not if he really wants to be your husband."
You make a face. Phrased like that, it sounds like—like extortion, maybe. Like you'd be presenting him with an ultimatum—help me get what I want, or else—and that's, that's not something you'd ever want to put on him. Your whole lives you've had different interests, alchemy and automail, the only real compatibility being the number crunching both require. You've been calling Ed alchemy freak as long as you can remember, and he's been calling you gearhead for just as long. You've both defined your lives and have been defined by your obsessions, and you'd never want to shoehorn something as crass as money between you.
Mr. Garfiel tuts; he's been doing that a lot, whenever Ed comes up in conversation. "It's only a suggestion, dear. If you and I are to be business partners it'd be a good idea to expand the shop."
You choke on room-temperature coffee, spluttering, "Business partners?"
Mr. Garfiel flutters his eyelashes demurely. "Didn't I mention?"
Granny forwards another letter from Ed, the envelope heavily stamped in Cretan and Amestrian. This one only has two pictures in it, and an actual letter to accompany them. Both pictures were taken in a city called Divio, dated weeks back. The first is of a timber-framed inn painted in a bright red and white, which must have been where he'd stayed. The second is of Ed, posed a little nervously in the shadow of a cathedral's green-hued archway. The stone's richly carved with gargoyles and solemn-faced men in robes, the kind of absurdly grim style he's always loved.
The letter is stilted, reading more like a list of bullet points he's checked off rather than anything personal. A holdover from when he'd been a state alchemist, you think with a fond roll of your eyes. You'd bet money all those reports he'd complained about having to write were just like this. Here's where he's been, here's what broke while he happened to be in the area, here's where he's going, here are a few other items of note.
But he'd ended the letter with, Miss you.
You decide to skip out on the hottest months of the year and return to Resembool in time for the midsummer festival. Granny won't say it but she's glad to have you back, especially when Marco Callahan blows off his hand messing around with fireworks. It's as nasty a shock as ever, the blood and burns, the pain that reduces a person to a sobbing shell of themselves. You manage to stave off any infection but only save his thumb. The one good thing about the injury is that it's not his dominant hand. Still, it's a good he's got three sisters and two brother-in-laws to keep an eye on him once it's safe to send him home.
"Idiot," Granny sighs, once it's just the two of you again.
"There's one every year," you agree, and start to draft out plans for a new hand. He hadn't said anything about wanting automail, but there's nothing wrong with planning ahead.
It's not long after that a wooden crate arrives from Creta, stuffed with as many books Ed could squeeze in. Most of them are in Cretan, which you page through curiously. The arrays in the alchemical textbooks have more loops and whorls than the ones you're used to the boys drawing out, but of course the alchemy's as much gibberish to you as the language these books are written in. There's a few other dry academic texts too, chemistry and history and medicine, and surprisingly, a smaller cardboard box carefully packed with gifts.
There's a skinny bottle of cognac and a new churchwarden pipe for Granny. The hand-painted playing cards are almost too pretty to touch, women and flowers done in the soft and flowing nouveau style that's managed to creep over the border despite the ongoing tensions between.
Then inside a small leather case there's a gorgeous gold gilt box about the length of your hand. It's stunning in the level of detail, mimicking the coiling curves of ivy. But the real surprise is hidden in the tiny hinges; there's a key slotted into the bottom of the outer case and a small hole to wind the box. When you touch the pull rod the top lid springs open to reveal a mechanical songbird with real feathers, and when it sings it sounds so real Den jumps to her feet looking for where the bird's gotten into the house.
You squeal, already reaching for your set of precision screwdrivers, but Granny smacks your hand with the envelope you'd missed. Another letter from Ed.
The letter's as stilted as the first, though he does at least think to apologize for dropping so many books on you without warning. He hopes the gifts make up for it, and that you and Granny can stash the crate wherever (so long as it's someplace dry, please?). He says he's staying in the city of Betarra for now, taken in by the Marchand family, tradesmen with a good grasp of Amestrian he's relieved to have come across so far south. He says he's going to try and come home in time for the harvest festival, and the thought of seeing him again puts a buttery warmth in your belly and a smile on your face you can't scrub off.
With the letter are several more pictures, and you're glad you brought your red photo album with you to keep them someplace safe. Most of them are taken by other people so Ed's included, if not the central focus. There's one of him stood on the fringe of a family of five, all with the same brown hair, green eyes, and easy smiles. Nearly every picture has at least one of the Marchands in it. Ed giving the youngest son a piggyback ride as he hops along a crooked stone wall; Ed in the kitchen with Mrs. Marchand, hands and shirt dusty with flour; the two older children waving at the camera in the foreground, a beautiful stone bridge arcing across a stretch of water like a sea serpent behind them.
The last photograph is a little blurred and crooked, like whoever had taken it had been laughing too hard to keep their hands steady. You wouldn't blame them; just looking at it makes you and Granny both laugh until your sides ache. In it, Ed's curled up in a cushioned rocking chair, hiding his beet-red face behind one hand while an empty wine glass dangles from the other. His trousers are missing and Mr. Marchand's perched on a footstool with Ed's automail in his lap, hands flapping and a look of total astonishment on his face. On the back of it Ed wrote, So it turns out they don't have anything half as good as Rockbell automail here.
And he ended this letter with, See you soon.
Just as he'd promised Ed comes home three days before the harvest festival, sun-browned and in need of a shave. Your hair catches on his stubble when you hug him, fierce and delighted, and when he pulls away he smooths your hair down with a look of such fondness in his eyes you could melt right there in the doorway.
"Welcome home," you say.
"It's good to be home," he replies.
"You're letting the cold in," Granny calls out primly from the stove. "Get in here, Ed, and let me have a look at you."
Ed fusses, but lets himself be tugged out of his dusty coat—which is distinctly redder than when he'd left, you note, and wonder what poor tailor he'd cajoled out there in broken Cretan—and endures a long onceover from Granny. She nods cryptically, then sends you both off upstairs so you can help him unpack.
You glare at her behind Ed's back, and she just bites her new pipe between her teeth and grins. She's not even trying to be subtle. Well, you're a grown woman, aren't you? It's not like you need permission to greet your—your fiancé home where Granny can't make any droll comments, right?
Ed, to his credit, doesn't make any droll comments either once you're up in your room. He just sets his suitcase on the chair by your bookshelf and pulls you into another hug.
"Missed you," he murmurs.
"I missed you too," you say, warm despite how chilly it is up here.
"I got you something. Well," he amends, "I got you a couple things."
"You didn't have to," you say, pleased anyway. "I haven't even had a chance to thank you for what you sent earlier."
"Did you like it? The, uh," he lets you go, frowning, though his hands slip around your wrists and stay there. "The songbird box, I think?"
"It's, um, boîte à oiseau chanteur in Cretan." He shrug, a little self-conscious. "My accent sucks, sorry."
"Like I'd know any better?" You lean against him, breathe in the sharp smell of coal dust on his clothes, know that means he spent the whole trip across Amestris with the window down on the train despite the cold. The other passengers must have hated him. "I love it. Thank you, Ed."
Embarrassed now, he lets go of you to open his suitcase, coming back with four small velvet boxes and a stern expression. "I didn't send these with the books because I figured you'd mangle your ears more if I wasn't here to beg you not to."
You don't dignify his melodrama with a response, tugging him to your—unmade, oops—bed since the one chair's taken by his stuff. He sits awkwardly, like he expects the frame to collapse or for Granny to burst in wagging her finger at the impropriety (as if he hasn't done a whole lot more wearing a whole lot less on it already), and you ignore that too in favor of plucking the boxes one by one out of his hands.
The first two hold stud earrings, one a pair of sterling silver, the other pearls. The third is a longer box holding a pair of chandelier earrings with matching necklace that catch the sunlight and don't let go, and the only reason you know you're not holding real sapphires is there's no way on Earth Ed could buy real sapphire jewelry this nice and still afford a train ticket home with the money he'd taken with him. Even so, you give him an incredulous look because these are beautiful and way fancier than anything else you own.
"They matched your eyes," he says by way of explanation. Oh god, you think with a bubble of laughter you only just manage to swallow. When did he figure out how to be romantic?
Inside the fourth box is a ring.
It's a plain gold band, nowhere near as intricate or glittery as the sapphire set, but your breath catches all the same for what it stands for.
"I didn't want to to get anything gaudy," Ed says quickly. "Not—not because you don't deserve something really big and expensive, 'cause you do, but I figured somethin' like that would just get in the way when you were working. And, y'know, it's somethin' you're gonna wear for—for a while, I mean, and I know you and I don't have the same taste in a lot of things, so I didn't want to jump in whole-hog on something you might not like—"
Whole-hog. He actually said whole-hog while trying to propose to you properly.
"How are you so bad at this?"
He blinks, flushes, and scowls all in rapid succession. "H-hey! I'm doing my best here!"
"I know," you sigh, despairing. That's the problem, isn't it? He is doing his best.
A normal man would have proposed during dinner at a place with white tablecloths and three forks, kneeling at his girlfriend's feet and slipping a glittering diamond worth more than his paycheck onto her finger. On the other hand, a normal woman wouldn't be wearing oil-stained coveralls and in as desperate need of a shower as her boyfriend who'd just traveled across the entire country and then some. People could say a lot about you and Ed, but normal would rank pretty low no matter who you asked.
"Winry," he starts, hackles rising.
You shut him up by slipping the ring on, then flap your hand at him while he's staring so it flashes in the sunlight. "Take your pants off."
At that his mood changes like quicksilver, some of that old snotty, aggravating Ed slipping into the waggle of his eyebrows and his crooked leer. "Gosh, Winry," he drawls. "I guess I did good after all, huh?"
"Take your pants off so I can look at your automail," you clarify through clenched teeth. "I could hear your knee clicking up the stairs."
"Oh," he squeaks, like letting the air out of a balloon. Hopeless, you think, tugging on his vest to pull him close for the kiss you've been wanting to give him since you saw him walking up the hill. Absolutely hopeless.
Ed insists on making dinner, as he'd gotten into the habit of doing before he'd left. Just like he'd gotten into the habit of patching the roof and pulling weeds and chopping firewood and running errands, and a hundred other chores besides. Ed's never been able to just sit; if there isn't a fun new book to distract himself with he paces and chatters and gestures, peering over shoulders, constantly underfoot, always a hair's breadth away from losing an eye for his curiosity. With alchemy now something he can only learn and share the learning of with others, he's sought a hundred other hobbies to busy his hands and his mind with.
Cooking is one he's actually turned out to be pretty good at.
He waves you and Granny off with a grin directed at a well-worn notebook, nearly full of his tidy script. You're sure he's got a dozen more squirreled away in his suitcase just like it. He fusses in the pantry and the icebox and the cupboards, running his palms and tapping his fingers against various ingredients.
"No crawfish," he mutters, like he's offended by the absence of freshwater crustaceans in the house. You and Granny share a worried look, but leave him to it. He's proven himself capable enough in the past to trust him not to burn the house down.
Dinner is… different. You'd expected one the simpler dishes he'd learned to cook under Granny's guidance. What he whipped up is something that's not quite a casserole and not quite a stew, a chicken dish garnished with parsley he'd grabbed fresh from the backyard garden. When he spoons a healthy portion into your bowl you're struck by how good it is to simply breathe in the smell of it, sharp garlic and earthy mushrooms pairing neatly with the sauteed meat.
Granny harrumphs in that particular way that means she's pleased. "Picked this one up in Creta?"
"Yeah," he says. His hands play across the table, twitching utensils and napkins and the saltshaker into more preferable arrangements. It's been over two years, and you still don't think you'll ever tire of seeing two real, flesh-and-bone hands where once there'd only been the left he'd kept and the automail you'd made for him. "Dunno what you'd call it in Amestrian, but it's really good. Madame M taught me how to make it."
It tastes as good as it smells, savory and filling, a real end-of-day worker's meal that leaves you warm and waving away the suggestion of seconds. You insist on cleaning up since he'd insisted on cooking, and Granny leaves you both to clatter around the kitchen to fetch the playing cards and the cognac.
You spend the evening betting small change and chocolates. You and Ed only have a little of the cognac—it's way too strong for either of you to enjoy, though the warm curl in your chest and tingle to your lips is pleasant enough. The bottles of lambic beer Granny trades for your empty tumblers gently bolsters your laughter as Ed swan dives into a spectacular losing streak.
Of course, Granny's got her ulterior motives. She waits until he's mid-swallow to casually ask, "So Ed, when's the wedding?"
He chokes, spilling a good portion of beer on himself and the table—sparing the cards, because Granny knows him and waited until you had the deck in-hand to shuffle. He's almost purple when he croaks, "The what?"
"The wedding," Granny repeats, slow and sly and gleefully twisting the knife. "That's a ring on my granddaughter's finger or my eyesight's finally going. So, when's it gonna be?"
"Uh," he manages.
"Granny." You stand up to fetch a dish towel, wetting it in the sink and tossing it to Ed so he can clean up. You're almost horribly aware of how brightly the gold band flashes on your hand, still adjusting to the slight weight of it. "He's only been back a few hours."
"Has this, uh." He coughs again, wipes his face, and tries to pick his brain up off the floor with mixed success. "Should we talk about—this—it—now?"
"No," you say firmly. "I'm going to rob you of every cenz you've got, then tomorrow I'm going to get a better look at your leg. And while I'm doing that, that's when we can talk about—about that."
You're not speaking very eloquently. You decide to blame the (not at all strong) lambic. Ed nods though, clearly relieved, and fishes out his coin purse.
"About that," he says, gathering enough of his bravado to smirk. "I don't have a cenz on me."
Granny picks up one of the coins she'd won from him in the last hand, squinting at it then swearing. "You cheat!"
"I didn't cheat!" He protests, hands up and grinning insufferably. "You never specified the currency."
With a surge of dismay you pick up one of the bronze coins you'd assumed was a 100 cenz piece. It's actually a Cretan 50 centimes, and what you'd thought had been almost three thousand cenz sitting pretty on your corner of the table is worth less than the chocolate candies scattered among the coins.
You bing the stupid coin off Ed's forehead. He just laughs.
You don't talk about It—the wedding, the abstract concept of weddings, anything that could be tangentially connected to weddings—the next day, or the following day, or the day of the festival or the day after that. It's not like you both mutually agreed to avoid the topic; it's just… easier not to broach it at all.
Because the thing is, it's nice to have Ed home again. It's nice to have him around to run to town if there's something that can't wait and you and Granny are up to your elbows in a new shipment of parts. It's nice to have him eager to fix any little thing that's started to sag or sputter around the house. It's nice to have him here for the festival, voting for the best decorated wagon ("Not nearly enough spikes," he declares), getting lost in the corn maze, winning first place in the wheelbarrow race. It's nice to share stories about what you've both done over the summer, the people you've met, things you've learned, things you've made. It's nice to sit on the porch at night, holding his hand and watching the stars come out.
You still have that urge to buy a train ticket to a city you've never been. You still find yourself preferring the bustle and brightness of Rush Valley to the rolling green plains of Resembool, but this….
This is nice.
Ed doesn't seem to be in any hurry to leave either. While you're in your workroom he spends hours pouring over all those books he'd sent, cross-referencing unfamiliar words with two different Cretan-to-Amestrian dictionaries, filling yet more notebooks and leaving your room looking like a paper tornado rushed through it. Your room, because the two of you have given up all pretense of not sharing a bed. Al being on the opposite side of the Great Desert (and therefore too far away to tease) probably has something to do with that. Neither of you made a big deal out of it. There isn't anything to make a big deal out of. He insists you have the most comfortable bed in the house, and the nights you don't stay up late working you stay up late talking until you fall asleep.
There is one problem with sleeping together, of course. You don't mind much when it happens, but that doesn't mean you wish it didn't.
The first week of October you're roughly woken by a splintery starburst of pain in your shin that pulls a cry out of you before you realize you're awake. Hissing through clenched teeth you clutch your leg, feel the heat of bruised muscle, feel your palm grow slick with blood. Great, you think muzzily, really fantastic. Morning is still hours away and you were up working on the finishing touches for Marco's hand, and now—
Beside you, Ed moans in his sleep.
In the waning moonlight you can barely make out the tense curve of his shoulder, his bangs sticking to his pinched and sweaty face. "Ed, you try. And louder, "Ed?"
He makes a soft keening sound, but doesn't wake. You keep one hand on your shin; rub small circles down his bare spine with the other, ghost your fingers along his ribs and the scars still gathered there. You call his name. You call him home from whatever ugly nightmare's caught him up.
He twitches, nearly kicking you again as he wakes with the deep-throated gasp of a drowning man. His hands come up to shield his face and he pants like he's been sprinting. Maybe in his dream he was.
"Ed," you say. "It's okay. You're safe. Everything's fine."
He looks at you over his shoulder, a little wild-eyed, a little like he doesn't quite register you're there. But slowly, slowly, the panic bleeds out of him. His hands drop, his breath evens out. He swallows, eyes shuttering, not relaxing so much as collapsing, like some crucial wire inside him's been snipped.
"It's okay," you say again, not expecting him to speak yet. He's always quiet after a bad dream. You wipe your hand on the sheets—they're due for a wash anyway, and a bloodstain's no great loss—and curl up against him. He squirms because he hates being the little spoon and you squirm because he's clammy, but eventually you both get comfortable. You press your forehead to the knob of his spine where his neck meets his shoulders, tangle the fingers of your left hand with the fingers of his right against his hip. You lay there, breathing together, feeling his pulse settle and the warmth return to his skin.
"Sorry," he says at last.
"Did I wake you?"
"Yeah." You hesitate. "Do you wanna talk about it?"
"No." He hesitates. "Sorry."
You squeeze his hand gently, wait for him to squeeze back. He feels everything twice with his right hand, thanks to the outfitting that had reinnervated the nerves in what had been left of his shoulder. Getting his arm back didn't undo what you and Granny had done, just like it hadn't taken away the thick coil of scar tissue or the titanium clavicle you'd modeled after his after Granny had removed it. When he touches anything, holds anything, there will be a paired response across his chest for the rest of his life.
"I think—" He takes a breath, and you pretend not to notice how shaky it is, "I think I'm gonna go downstairs. Get some sleep, okay?"
"Actually, I was gonna get up too," you say, and shimmy out from under the sheets into the chilly air before he can ask why. Your toes curl in protest at the cold floorboards, and your shin protests the use of your tibialis anterior muscle. He rolls over, eyes flashing in the moonlight.
"You were up late working," he protests, like it matters, like you're not an old hand at odd hours. You toss him a hoodie he'd left hooked over the chair, then grab yours (his, given to you, comfortably faded and worn-in) and make for the door.
He doesn't notice you favor your leg on the stairs, but there's no hiding the bright smear of blood down your leg once the kitchen light's on. He freezes, dismayed, and you ignore his gawking in favor of wetting a rag at the sink and sponging the cut clean.
"What—?" He tries feebly.
You interrupt him. "Can you heat some water up? Tea sounds good, don't you think?"
He makes a few more stricken noises, because this isn't the first time he's bruised you with his leg but it is the first time he's managed to get you with the sharp edge of his heel. You leave him to it, shouldering past him down the hall to fetch some antiseptic and bandages.
Once it's cleaned and wrapped—it really isn't much of a cut at all, half an inch long and only sluggishly bleeding—you return to the kitchen. Ed's put the kettle on and pulled two mugs and a few tea tins out. When you walk in he's by the stove, rubbing his shoulder with a far-off look in his eyes, chewing on his cheek. He comes back at the sound of your footsteps, and the far-off look turns guilty when his eyes fall to the bandage.
"Would you quit that?"
He blinks. "Wh—"
"Stop," you order him firmly, pointing at the table. "Sit. Stop being weird."
"I'm not the one being weird," he retorts, but sits. His knee doesn't so much as whisper, you note. Good. Here's hoping he doesn't wreck it the next time he leaves.
You linger by the stove, leaning against the counter. "It's okay," you say again.
"I hurt you," he says, miserable.
"You were having a nightmare." Not excusing it, just reminding him that it hadn't been intentional. You don't bruise easily, but automail is unyielding and you've built his leg to endure and dish out far more than the average user would ever require.
"Still," he tries. "I can sleep in my old room, so it doesn't happen again."
You smile at him, fond and exasperated all at once. "That'd do in a pinch, sure. But do you really plan on sleeping in separate beds forever?"
He makes several complicated expressions, not really settling on one. "I—Winry, what Granny said the night I got back, you know I want to, right? Get married, I mean, properly, however you'd like—"
"That's the trouble," you say, your voice light. Oh thank god, you think, he's just as scared as you are. "Every time I try and think about what our wedding might be like I panic. Granny's been behaving herself since you've been home but trust me, she's been trying to get me to hammer out a date and who I'll invite and who you'll invite, and she keeps dropping hints about letting me borrow her wedding dress—"
"I think you're a little tall for that," he jokes weakly.
"And Mr. Garfiel has been a nightmare, honestly, he'd be heartbroken if I let anyone else plan it at this point, but the way he's going on it'll cost more than you and I make in a year and that's being conservative—"
"Which he's not-"
"—and I swear half of Rush Valley knows we're engaged, and you know everybody here in town will passive-aggressively hate us for the next thirty years if we don't invite all of them, and even Paninya's excited for an excuse to dress up, and—I just—" You break off, flapping your hands vaguely, too frustrated to put your worries into words. "I just want you."
He blinks, a little saucer-eyed. You swallow, feel your face warming horribly. It's the train station all over again. Can't you two just talk like normal people without getting so—so flustered?
The kettle decides to whistle then, and you hastily pull it off the burner before it can wake Granny.
"Winry," Ed says, soft.
"I'm not asking you to stay," you say quickly, not daring to look at him. "We don't need to rush anything. I don't want to rush anything. Getting—getting married doesn't mean we have to settle down. Not yet, at least."
"Nothing wrong with making it official though, right?" He's smiling when you look, nervous again. He stands up to join you at the counter. His color's better, so you don't try to tell him not to. His hand rests at the base of your spine, the other reaching for the mugs so you can pour the water.
"Mr. Garfiel wants to make me his business partner," you say. Ed's eyes widen, a smile following after.
"Seriously? That's amazing! You're gonna, right?"
"I want to." And you do, you really, really do. But you've calculated the cost of buying Mr. Brower's shop down to replacing the tiles over the second floor windows. Even if Mr. Garfiel pitches in like he plans to, even if you didn't buy a single new piece of machinery and relied only on what's in Atelier, it'd be too much. It'd be way too much. You pour the water and set the kettle down, stepping away from Ed's touch so he can open a tea tin and mess with each mug. "He wants to expand the shop too."
"With how much business you bring in, I'd say it's about damn time."
"He wants us to buy the shop next door." You bite your lip. "Us, Ed."
His hands still, just for a second. Then he's closing up the tea tin and turning to face you, and the look on his face isn't one of outright dismissal, like you'd feared it would be. He looks like he's actually considering it. "Rush Valley," he says, rolling the words around in his mouth. "It's hot as hell down there."
"Better than living someplace cold," you say, aiming for teasing and not quite reaching. He still rolls his eyes.
"You're not wrong about that." He hums, crossing his arms. "Y'know, I kinda figured you'd wanna strike out on your own for a few years. Get out from under Granny and Garfiel, make Rockbell a household name on your own steam."
He says it so casually, fully confident in your skill to do something so crazy at your age. Of course, look at him and Al. Elrics come standard with crazy.
"Speaking of the cold," he goes on. "I put off asking about it 'cause I didn't want to make it sound like I was just here for maintenance, but what'd you do with my old northern style leg?"
"Used it for parts," you say, and a smile curls your words. "You outgrew it, or did you forget?"
He stands a little straighter, pleased. Like a peacock, honestly. "Damn, was hopin' you still had it laying around."
"Sounds like you're thinking of going north for the winter."
"Northwest," he corrects, grimacing like he's already got frostbite gnawing at his leg. "I got some suggestions for a couple of alchemists and collectors before I left, and they're all pretty close to the Drachman border."
"We don't keep northern style parts in stock," you remind him. "It'll take at least a week to order everything, probably closer to two even if I get Mr. Garfiel to priority ship it all."
"I'm not in a rush to go freeze the rest of my toes off," he says, smiling as he hands you a mug. "C'mon, tell me about this shop Garfiel's drooling over. I'm warning you now, I will throw my entire savings into renovating it if it's as frilly as his place is."
And just like that, just like always, Ed takes your worries and dashes them to pieces. You wrap your hands around your mug and rejoin him at the dining table, and together you slot the rough edges of your futures together until a picture worth keeping comes together.
You're young, you're both so young. There's time to plan and time to panic, and time left over to grow into the people you'll both be ready to settle down as for keeps. For now, there's weak tea and your fingers slotted together, Den snoring between your feet, and a shared, trembling eagerness to see what the dawn will bring.