Jizn' Prodoljayetsya - Life Goes On - Жизнь Продолжается
by Aoi Kami Sarah
NOTE: This is a 'what-if' end-of-series type fic. 20% fluff 80% angst. This was written before I saw episode 25. No spoilers, just conjectures. And Albert's name is pronounced 'al-bear leng-el'. Thanks. -aks
Edward lifted his head up off the ground. Dust and debris wafted away on the breeze. He blinked and squinted as it got in his eyes. His limbs felt like lead. Even if he wanted to wipe the grime away from his eyes, he couldn't bring himself to move. He rasped and coughed, slowly brought his automail arm out from under him and pushed himself up on his elbow. He could hear orders being shouted from behind; the military was coming.
"Al…" he coughed out his brother's name. Before him, bits of metal were scattered everywhere. Scar was long gone. The Homunculi were nowhere to be seen. He was sure it was over and was sure that at long last he knew the Answer, but none of that mattered at the moment. "Al?!"
The bits of metal did not answer him. He pulled himself forward, his body still not responding to the call to action. Edward dragged himself about four feet before his strength gave out. The situation began to sink in. His younger brother couldn't answer him because he'd been blown to bits in the fight. He couldn't hold the tears back any longer. Edward reached out and gathered an armful of metal and pulled it toward himself. "Al… I'm sorry. I failed… I failed you!" He pressed the bits to his face and wept.
"Brother…" a small voice sobbed back.
Edward gasped and looked around. "Al? Al?!" he called, but there was still no sign of him. The feather from the top of his helmet blew by. Edward's mind reeled. He stared down at the earth and tried to cling to his sanity. Suddenly his eyes widened and he snatched at one of the metal bits: a piece about three inches in diameter with markings on one side.
"Elric brothers!" a booming voice called as footsteps pounded towards him. "Are you all right, Edward?!"
Ed wriggled as he quickly and carefully tucked the piece into his shirt. "Al…" he repeated, his voice steadily growing louder. When Armstrong reached him, he was curled in a fetal position, clutching as much of the metal scrap as he could and screaming his brother's name in agony.
"Oh no… Edward…"
"Edward is coming home," Grandma Pinako stated, eyeing the heavy, black telephone as if it had just insulted her. It was a rainy autumn evening in Risenburgh. Winry lit up for a moment, but that light soon faded as she saw the seriousness on her grandmother's face. Pinako put the receiver down slowly and turned to her granddaughter. "Alone."
Pale grey light filtered in through the large windows of Edward's hospital room. He was bruised and exhausted, but the doctors assured him he would be fine in a few days.
"Please," Lieutenant Colonel Hughes whispered, leaning over his bed early that morning. "Please tell me what you learned." Edward was mute. He looked up to the ceiling, his eyes not quite focusing on the intricately designed pressed tin above him. Hughes sighed and stared at the boy. It was hard for him to believe Ed was only sixteen years old with such a lost and weary look in his eyes. "Ed. It's really important. Scar is still on the loose we…"
"Al…" Ed whispered.
Hughes gritted his teeth. Before he could reach out to shake Edward from his dementia, a man in a freshly pressed suit and a female uniformed officer Hughes didn't recognize entered the room. "I'm sorry Lieutenant Colonel we need to examine the Fullmetal Alchemist. If you'd excuse us?"
"You don't look like any doctor I've ever seen!" Hughes forced a laugh as he got up.
"I'm a psychotherapist."
"Ah. So you'll be evaluating him, then? To see if he's fit for service?"
The officer seemed annoyed that he guessed correctly. "We understand Mr. Elric has suffered a loss…" she said quietly.
"Al…" Ed whispered from the bed, his eyes still glued to the tin ceiling.
"If you don't mind?" The shrink waited with false patience as Hughes slowly let go of Edward's hand.
"Good luck, kid," he whispered and strolled out of the room.
The door clicked behind him. He drew another breath but before he could sigh, he looked to his left and raised his brows in surprise. "Colonel…" he address his superior and saluted.
"Well?" Mustang asked with a sidelong glance at his friend.
"Well? The shrink just went in."
"What do YOU think?" he asked.
Hughes let out the sigh and rubbed the back of his head. "I don't know those two, so I don't know how long it'll take but," he said as he turned and walked down the hall, "they'll take his watch with them when they go."
Three days later the grey had given up and packed it in without even so much as a sprinkle. The noonday sun shown down on the world from an azure sky. Along the walkway from the street to the headquarters, a handful of military personnel watched the red jacket shuffle towards the waiting car.
No one knew what to say. Even Armstrong, who was gifted with being able to cheer anyone up no matter how bleak the situation, was at a loss for words. Edward Elric walked slowly through the gauntlet of his friends. At the end, just in front of the long car's open door, their colonel waited. "I'm sorry," he said quietly. Edward didn't look up. His eyes were dull and half-lidded. Lieutenant Ross carried his suitcase and helped him up into the car which then drove off towards the train station.
Kimbly clenched his fists. "It's just not fair. They were so close." Some nodded in agreement. Others muttered things like 'damn shame' and 'poor kid'. Mustang walked past them, back into the office building without another word.
Winry was starting to hate the telephone. Every time it rang her heart flew up into her throat. For the past three days there had been no word, no call from Ed or the military. She knew something was very wrong if he couldn't call to reassure her that at least he was all right. The dreaded device rang again. Pinako, up to her elbows in a customer's knee, shot Winry a look. Much as she wanted to save the girl grief, she couldn't get to the phone.
"Rockbell Automail…" Winry answered with a feeble voice. "Yes. Yes…" she said then went silent as the person on the other end spoke. Pinako paused in her work for moment and looked up. "I see. Thank you, Lieutenant Colonel. Good-bye." She dropped the handset down in disgust and folded her arms. "Mr. Hughes said Edward will be home tomorrow. He has been honorably discharged from his position as a State Registered Alchemist," she parroted what she had just been told.
Pinako screwed her face up in confusion. "Whatever for?"
Winry shuddered. "He's been driven insane by the loss." She stood very still for a moment then ran upstairs, trying hard not to cry until she got out of Pinako's customer's earshot.
The train chugged along and Edward's head lolled a little as it rested on the window. "Edward?" Lieutenant Ross leaned over and tried to get the young man's attention. He'd been silent since the trip began. "Are you warm enough?" she asked. When he didn't respond, she took a soft, blue blanket down from the overhead bin and draped it over him. His gloved left hand lay slack by his side. After staring at it for some time, Ross made her move. Ed stiffened as he felt her give his hand a squeeze. He slowly turned his head to look over at her and gave her the tiniest of smiles. As he turned back to the window he whispered 'thank you,' and until they reached Risenburgh that was all he said.
The sun was low in the western sky as Ed set foot in the Rockbell Automail shop entryway; shoulders slumped, staring at the floor while Ross said good-bye. When the door shut behind her Ed heaved a sigh, his vacant look replaced by pinched brows and a soft, sad smile. Winry bit her lip and searched for the right thing to say. She was torn between crying, smiling and lunging at him. Before she could decide, Ed spoke up.
"Sorry to worry you guys," he said as he unclasped his jacket, reached into his shirt through the neck and rummaged for something. He pulled out a three-inch piece of metal, examined it quickly and carefully put it to his ear. "It's ok now, Al. We're home."
Pinako and Winry exchanged looks. Cautiously, Winry stepped forward. "Ed, you can relax now. Why don't you take "Al" and sit down in a comfy chair?" She tried to smile and nodded her head encouragingly. Ed blinked at her.
"Al, hang on a sec. I'm gonna give you to Winry." He turned the piece of metal around and held his arm out to her. "This is all that's left. Put the plain side to your face. Careful of the seal."
On one side of the jagged-edged grey metal she could clearly see the blood-seal used to fuse Alphonse Elric's soul to the suit of armor. Her heart fluttered as the idea of Al still being alive rekindled her hope. Gently and with trembling hands, Winry took the piece and pressed it to her ear. Her heart somersaulted when she heard soft sobbing seemingly reverberating in her own head. "Al?"
"Winry…" his voice whispered. "Please. Don't let my brother do it…"
"Do what, Al?"
Ed closed his eyes and gritted his teeth.
"He's going to try to make me a new body… Please don't let him, Winry… I don't want to be alone…"
'Alone?' she thought and stared hard at Edward, but his eyes were glued to the cup of coffee Grandma Pinako had just given him.
Outside, Lieutenant Ross paced back and forth. She stopped and watched the sun duck behind the distant mountains. Finally she nodded to herself and walked back to the village.
It was a quiet night. Although the women were relieved to hear Al was alive and Ed wasn't insane, Al's words bit deep into Winry's mood. Pinako could tell something was amiss, but was never very good at stopping young people from doing what they would. She went to bed early and Winry sat at the workbench threading wires in preparation for another job, trying to distract herself.
Her hands eventually stopped moving and her eyes unfocused. Breathing a sigh, she bowed her head and got up. It was too much to think about. She needed to talk.
Ed was sitting in a chair in the living room with his automail elbow perched on the arm. The piece of metal was pressed to his ear but his eyes were on a book in his lap.
"Ed?" she asked tentatively. "Can I speak to you… alone?"
He asked the bit of metal that was all that was left of his little brother if this was all right and put it back in his pocket. "He can't hear me unless I'm touching him. What is it?" Ed asked. His posture was usually horrible, but now it looked like he was becoming one with the chair. Exhaustion radiated from him, yet he hadn't gone to bed yet.
Winry rubbed her hands together. "Every time you come back to us, it seems like there's less of you. I've seen it over the years. It's like a slow deterioration."
"Tryin' to say I'm getting shorter?" he asked quietly, a small twist on his lips, but no humor in his voice.
"I know what you're planning on doing and I'm afraid this time I'll never see you again…"
His shoulders slumped even more. "Winry…"
"No. Please. Let me tell you. I know this is too early, but I have to tell you, before it's too late. Edward… I love you."
Ed's eyes widened just slightly, but he turned away from her and scoffed. "That's stupid."
Winry took a deep breath. "I don't expect you to feel the same. I just wanted you to know, that there's someone else in this world that cares about you."
"What if it was me?" he asked quietly.
"Huh?" That wasn't even slightly close to what she had expected to hear from him.
"What if I was a suit of armor? Would you still feel the same way? How can you say something like that to me?"
"Ed… How can YOU say that? I can't explain my feelings, and I can't say what would have happened if…"
"That's really selfish of you."
"What?" she asked, growing angrier by the moment. "How is trying to give you something to live for selfish?!"
Edward hung his head a little. "The two people who care most about me want things of me I can't give," he muttered. "I suppose I'm being selfish too. Of course I thought it was selfless..." he hissed under his breath. "I'm sorry, Winry." Slowly, Edward stood up. "I can't tell you I love you, even if I wanted to. Perhaps if things had been different." He flexed his automail hand and looked up to face her. "I'm sorry that this is the way things are."
"I see." Winry nodded slightly. He wasn't going to give up. Not for her, not for the future, not for anything. Even her love couldn't save him from the decision he had already made. Winry stared at his fist for a moment then went back to work.
That night as she tried in vain to get some sleep Winry heard the stairs creak. She knew the heavy footfalls weren't her grandmother's and snuck out to investigate. Downstairs, the house was empty, but just as she was about to turn back a flicker of light caught her eye.
In the garage next-door to the house several candles sprang to life.
Winry opened the door and stared at the scene before her.
He paused in the middle of drawing symbols on the cement floor and winced. All around him the white chalk spiraled out in intricate patterns, concentric circles dotted with equations and symbols that she never did understand. "Winry. Go back to bed," he ordered and continued to draw.
"It's all I CAN do!" he shouted and stopped drawing again. Edward looked up at her through his bangs, his eyes showing fatigue and conviction as they pleaded with her. "It's my fault. My doing. I will do what I must. Please, Winry."
"What's all the fuss?" Grandma Pinako asked from the doorway. "Oh my… You poor child."
"Grandma, Ed is…" Winry put her hands to her mouth.
Pinako cut her off. "I was just out for a smoke on my balcony and saw people in uniform headed this way."
"WHAT?!" they both cried.
"Shit. They can't know what I learned, can they?! They must not have bought my crazy act…" Ed clutched the chalk and stared at the piece of metal in the middle of the enormous array. "Al… What do we do now…?"
Since they were children, the three of them had been together. She knew how strong the bond between the Elric brothers was. Ed would give his life for Al, and vice versa. Winry set her jaw and made up her mind. She grabbed Ed by his red jacket, pulled him close and planted a huge kiss on his lips.
"Lieutenant Colonel Hughes!" Ross called, trying to keep up with her superior's long strides as they walked up the long road to the Rockbells'. "Are you SURE? Edward wouldn't lie to us, would he?"
"You're the one who had doubts, Ross," he pointed out, the scant light of the half-moon reflecting off his glasses. "I was simply looking out for his well-being."
"If you'll excuse me, Sir, that sounds highly suspicious."
Hughes laughed. "Let's just say it's worth checking into. For some reason I just can't believe that Alphonse is dead."
She nodded and they picked up the pace.
When they were about 800 feet from the building a bright red shape darted out of the garage and cut across the horizon. "He's running?!" Ross asked, astounded.
Hughes cursed under his breath and they gave chase. "Ed! Wait! We just want to talk to you!" A few minutes later, they closed the gap. The figure tripped and fell over an exposed root and the officers caught up with him.
"Edward? What's going on?" Ross asked and grabbed the fallen boy by the shoulder. Hughes scoffed. When she felt flesh where there should have been automail her heart rose to her throat. "What the…?"
"Eheh…" Winry panted and rolled over. "Sorry…" She ran her thumb and forefingers down the lapels of Ed's red jacket.
Hughes furrowed his brows. "Winry, what's happening? Where's Ed?" She hugged the jacket close and kept her mouth shut.
Their answer came in a flash. The light of a massive transmutation coming from Rockbells' illuminated the night sky. "Ed..." Winry whispered and scrambled to her feet. The three of them bolted up the hill.
Winry ran in through the front door and charged her way to the connecting door to the garage, knocking over a stack of trade magazines and a coffee cup as she went. When she got to the door, Grandma Pinako stood in her way with her arms outstretched.
"No, Child," the old woman advised. "You're not to go in there." Her face was sullen. Winry might have pushed her dear grandmother aside if it weren't for something completely out of place. Clutching Pinako's skirts, wrapped in the throw blanket from the couch was a young boy whose dull amber eyes were glazed over with fear and grief. He shivered and stared up at Winry, but before he could say anything, Lieutenant Ross came huffing in after Hughes.
The Lieutenant Colonel pushed his glasses up his nose and took a deep breath. "Where is Edward Elric?"
"He's not here," Pinako barked.
"Who is that child?"
"He is…" Pinako's eyes darted to the left quickly. Hughes' followed. "My god-son, Albert L'Engle. Your presence upsets him. He lost his family in the military. Please. Leave us alone."
Hughes sighed quietly, nodded and ordered Ross to follow him out. Reluctantly, she saluted and searched the two women's faces for an answer. Hughes bowed his head to them before ducking out the front door.
Winry knelt down in front of the boy called Albert L'Engle. "Can it be…? Al?" His eyes softened a little and he nodded, clutching the blanket to his bare skin. Winry put her hands on his arms. "Where's Ed?" she asked, a hopeful smile on her lips.
For a moment, she still believed that Edward Elric could do anything; that he would make it through this, too.
"My brother… is…" Al's voice was quiet and shaky. "Gone."
Hughes turned away from the open garage door. Lieutenant Ross put her hands to her mouth and tried to suppress a scream of horror. In the middle of the floor was what remained of a transmutation circle of enormous scope and detail, the likes of which neither of them had ever seen and two pieces of automail in a sea of blood.
"Edward…" Ross remembered his 'thank you' on the train the day before and she could not stop the tears. Hughes tried to keep it together, but when he heard Winry's wail of despair from inside he grabbed Ross and started walking into the dawn.
Winry sat on a couch in the living room across from the chair Ed read a book in not but a few hours before. She stared at the shattered coffee cup and scattered pile of magazines nearby, but the thought of cleaning them up didn't come to her. Her eyes drifted and widened as they rested on the book on the little table next to the chair: The Good Book. It's red ribbon place marker stuck just in the first dozen or so pages. "Genesis," Winry whispered and pressed her eyes into the palms of her hands.
Near the radiator in Pinako's favorite short, squat, overstuffed chair sat Alphonse Elric, still wrapped in the soft, blue throw blanket. He hugged his knees and stared at the floor. Some squeaking sounds emanated from his tiny frame before finding the courage to become words. "Winry?" he asked softly, still unused to the lack of reverberation in his voice.
Startled, she looked up and smiled awkwardly. "Yeah?" she asked and snuffed back the evidence of tears as she walked over to him. She knelt down in front of him. Al leaned back in the chair and pulled his legs in further.
"I think," he croaked. "I'm thirsty."
"Oh, ok. I'll get you a glass of water," she said dreamily and got to her feet. The kitchen was only a few yards away, but when Winry was just out sight Al cried out. "What's the matter?!" she asked, eyes wide as she stormed back into the room.
"Please! Don't…" With the blanket still clutched in his hands Alphonse brought his fists up to his eyes. "Please don't leave me alone…"
Winry slumped her shoulders and crossed the room. He tried to shrink back again when she got close, but the chair only afforded so much room. Al squeezed his eyes shut and whimpered.
"It's alright, Al. I'm going to take care of you."
He gasped as he felt her arms encircle him, but the shock soon faded as her warmth surrounded him. Slowly, Winry pulled him up out of the chair, walked with him to the kitchen, got him a glass of water and watched as he tentatively sucked it down. Then she led him upstairs to her room to get him some clothes. When he was dressed, Winry came in and marveled at him.
"It's really something. You look exactly the same as you did…" When he started to shake, she put a hand on his shoulder. "I'm not ever going to let you be alone. Don't worry, Al."
"It's not…" he sniffled. "It's not what I wanted…" In the scant light from the hall the boy's dull golden eyes sparkled with tears and his face was contorted with frustration. "My brother didn't even ask me. He just told me. I didn't want this!" Al shouted, his young voice sounding severely out of place with the gravity of his words.
"It's all he could do…" Winry repeated Ed's words.
"I don't care! There must have been another way!" Al pushed her hand aside. "I didn't want this, not this way!"
Winry kept her eyes on the floor. "You should respect your brother's last wish…"
"I didn't ask him to do this! I don't want this body! I want my brother!" Al cried.
Winry's fists balled up. She'd heard enough. Her hand flew.
The sound of flesh meeting flesh seemed to echo off the walls of her room. Al grasped his face and stared, astounded at the young woman. Hot, fresh tears came to his eyes. He tried to run from her, but she grabbed his arm.
"Let me go."
"Only if you promise me to never take your body for granted ever again," she muttered.
"You have it all wrong, Winry. I don't take it for granted." He didn't want to have to tell her, but she wasn't letting go. "It's not mine," he hissed and looked up, his lips pursed tight in anger for a moment. "It's his."
Al watched as her fingers loosened from his arm. "Gramma Pinako is down there right now. She can tell you what's left. Two pieces of automail, that's it. Everything else…" he put his hand to his chest. "Is right here. How am I supposed to live with that?"
Winry fell to her knees. "So that's it," she whispered. They stayed like that for a moment. Al calmed down and realized how badly he'd hurt her. He tried to reach out, but slowly, she lifted her head. Al was more than surprised to see a weary smile on her lips. "I'm not going to leave you. Your home is here with us. I'll do my best to help you, and maybe one day one of us will figure how to live with this." He cringed as she opened her arms but relaxed, let out a soft, tired sigh and fell against her, wrapping his own arms around her.
Alphonse, who the Rockbells were publicly calling 'Albert', was still sullen and quiet a week after his brother sacrificed his life for his. He stayed close to either Pinako or Winry all the time, often hanging on to their clothing or standing just close enough to touch them. He couldn't get to sleep alone, so Winry let him sleep with her. Since he was in a ten-year-old's body, she didn't think the situation weird and having her friend close by helped ease her nightmares.
One day, while taking a break from customizing an elbow joint for a customer, Winry got Al a glass of lemonade and watched him, as she usually did, as he drank it down.
"Ya know, Al…" she smiled deviously. "I just got a fun idea…"
He looked up warily. "What?" he asked, a crease forming between his brows. Winry grabbed his hand and pulled him towards the doorway to the kitchen. She pressed him back against the frame and pulled something out of her pocket. Al winced and closed his eyes.
"There!" she chimed and put her hands on her hips. A thick carpenter's pencil stuck out of one fist. She pointed to the doorframe. "I bet you'll grow up big and tall in no time!"
Winry's smile faded as tears came to the boy's eyes. He stared at the floor. "Sorry," he whispered. "Stupid memories."
"Ah… I'm sorry, Al. I shouldn't have…" She tried to apologize, but Al pushed his way past her and ran up to her room. She didn't hear the door slam, but the squeaky thud told her he had jumped into bed and probably had the covers up around his head. She knew it would be hours before he'd re-emerge, red-eyed and even more quiet than usual.
"It's all right, Winry dear," Pinako said as she entered the room. "You did right. He's got to start living. If we shelter him and walk on eggshells all the time, he'll grieve for his brother all his life."
Winry hugged herself. "I wonder when I'll get a chance to grieve?"
The season changed and changed again. Al had been helping out with the prep-work for the automail business and was taking to it rather well. He worked hard and never complained. He felt glad to be able to do something to help out for all the Rockbells had done for him.
One day, Winry took the pencil to the doorframe again. She made the mark above Al's head and looked directly into his cool, brassy eyes. "Whoa," she marveled. "I was right. You are as tall as me now."
Al's eye's brightened and he turned to look at the pencil mark. "Really?" he asked enthusiastically. Sure enough, the mark was five feet three inches from the floor. He quickly turned back and caught his breath. Winry was still very close. Both of their cheeks grew rosy.
For over six months they had lived under the same roof; even slept in the same bed for a month or so. Alphonse was now almost 17 years old and looked almost 15. "It's really amazing, don't you think, that I grew so fast?" he whispered.
Winry nodded and found herself leaning towards him. "It's really amazing…" she replied, saw he was leaning in as well and closed her eyes.
"Winry!" Grandma Pinako's voice snapped the both of them to attention. Al knocked his head against the doorframe, winced and held the bruise.
"Yes?!" Winry piped in reply.
"I'm sorry!" Al waved his hands wildly. "I didn't mean to… well, I did, but I mean…!"
When Pinako didn't show her disapproving face, they stopped flailing and listened.
"Help…" came the feeble voice from around the corner.
Another six months flew by. On a cool fall afternoon, a small group of people gathered on a hilltop. Pinako's grave stood next to her sons' and daughter-in-law's. Al held Winry by the shoulders as the reverend spoke to the crowd. When all the other mourners had left, Alphonse gave Winry a squeeze and faced her.
"Winry, I was thinking, without Grandma's help, having just my lame excuse for an attempt at autosmithing won't be enough."
"Al, don't say that. We'll be just fine…"
"No. Winry. Last week you couldn't buy meat. I noticed. I know how I can be of help." His eyes were large and sad. The crisp autumn breeze blew through his hair. He noticed her shiver and took off his coat. "I'm going to take up alchemy again."
"You don't have to…" she tried to protest.
He smiled and put the jacket around her shoulders. "It's time."
Winry pulled out another tissue as her grandmother's words echoed in her mind. 'Start living… else he'll grieve for his brother all his life…'
Just past the big tree on the crest of the hill, three lonely graves stood. "It is time," she agreed and laced her arm through his. "Will you come with me?"
Alphonse sighed but smiled genuinely at her. "Anywhere."
They stood in front of the graves marked with Tricia, Edward and Alphonse Elric's names for a few minutes, cried quiet tears and went home. There was no need for words.
Winry had said good-bye after she kissed him and ran away with his red coat. Al had said good-bye just before his brother put the piece of metal down on the garage floor. He'd neither seen nor heard what happened next and was eternally grateful that his nightmares were free of more horrific images. Despite the sadness that arose from being at Ed's grave for the first time, Alphonse didn't feel the raw, numb, terrible feeling he used to. Now, there was someone at his side who warmed his heart with her ever-present smile. He made a silent vow to try to keep that smile on her face for as long as he was able.
That night, Al stayed up reading in his room well after midnight. He'd look up occasionally, glancing out the window at the lawn. Two illuminated patches of grass told him Winry's light was still on. Just as he was about to check to see if she had fallen asleep with it on, one patch disappeared. He sighed in relief and finished reading the second chapter of "Principles of Hydro-Electric Alchemy". When he put the book down and reached over to turn off the light he heard a soft knocking at his door.
Winry didn't wait to be let in. She leaned in the doorframe, her eyes heavy and still red-rimmed. "I…" she whispered. "I don't want to be alone tonight." Alphonse turned the covers down and smiled sweetly. She ran to him, jumped into his arms, and cried herself to sleep in minutes.
Al stroked Winry's hair and watched the darkness fade with the coming of the dawn. He remembered not long ago their roles had been reversed; he had been the one lost and grieving and she had smiled and held him while he cried.
"Don't worry, Winry. I'll take care of you," he shushed her as she fidgeted. Judging by the way her brows came together a nightmare was taking a hold of her. She whimpered lightly.
Al stopped petting her hair and held his breath.
"Ed… Don't go…"
A few months later, Winry dumped the groceries down on the kitchen table and cursed. She stood with her hands on her hips and an annoyed look on her face. "Stupid, good for nothing morons. I oughta…"
Alphonse chose this moment to walk into the room. "Are you ok, Winry?" His hands were covered with carbon dust and dirt.
"You wouldn't believe the nerve of those guys!" she shouted.
Al tried to inch around her to the sink to wash up. "Oh dear, what did they say now?"
"Hey Rockbell! Whaddaya, a lahbeezian?" She quoted. "Morons don't even know it's les-bi-an!"
Al started turning red.
"I mean seriously!" she jumped up and sat on the table, pulled an apple out of one of the bags, polished it on her shirt and took a huge bite out of it. "They think just cause a girl isn't 'spoken for' she's got something against men! Sheesh! I mean," she crunched, "I love living in the country and all, but come on!"
Al laughed and took an apple out as well. Before he could take a bite, Winry put hers down and looked up at him. The anger was gone. "So? When are you going to marry me, Al?"
He stood there with the apple a couple of inches from his open mouth for a few seconds before stammering. "I… I… That is… Well…"
"Well?" she asked, waiting patiently.
"Winry," Al began, his eyes gravitating to his shoes. "I love you with all my heart… but I'm afraid that your heart lies elsewhere."
"What?" she asked, completely taken aback. He looked up, worry creasing his brow.
"You call out to my brother in your sleep."
She gasped. Certainly she'd had a bad dream or two that must have had Edward in them. Even without seeing what had happened that night, she knew her grandmother had buried those two pieces of automail, so something god-awful must have happened to him.
Surely when Alphonse was created he'd seen the aftermath? She could only imagine the nightmares that plagued him and woke him in the middle of the night.
Winry's shoulders relaxed. She met his gaze and smiled sadly. "So do you." She held the half eaten apple in her hands and played with the stem. "I loved him. I miss him. I'll never forget him. He'll be in my dreams both good and bad… probably for the rest of my life, but as for my heart…" she said. "…it's yours."
He wondered at her for a beat. "Thank God," Al whispered, let out a relieved sigh and dropped to ground. He rested his head against her knees. She laughed a little at him and tousled his hair. He fished for something in his pocket.
"Years and years ago, my brother and I had one of our famous fights over next to nothing. We fought to see who had the right to ask to marry you. I won, if you'll recall, but I was five I think, so I got turned down." He produced a small ring from his breast pocket and presented it to her. It shone with the brilliance of platinum and boasted three large, clear, square-cut diamonds. "Winry Rockbell, will you marry me?"
She gaped at him, but let him slide the delicate ring onto her finger. "Al…" she brought it up to examine it. "Where did you get the money to afford this?!"
He blushed. "I… I made it."
"Really? With alchemy? That's…"
He swallowed deep.
"That's amazing!" Winry cheered and threw her arms around his neck.
"Is that a yes?" he choked, but was fairly certain that it was.
Several years later, 'Albert L'Engle' called "thank you, come again!" as another happy customer took his mended muffler and left. The sign in front of the house on the hill now read 'Rockbell Automail and Alchemy'.
"You done yet, Al?" Winry called from further inside the automail shop. He dusted his hands off and looked at the clock, which read a quarter to five.
"I think so, unless I get a walk-in. Do you want to knock off early and uhhh…" he trailed off as he approached her, stroked her bandana'd head and bowed to kiss her.
Winry leaned back in her chair with her hands still tangled in wires and returned the kiss. "Nnnnn…" she groaned, looking past him. "Looks like we just got 'walked-in' on…" Al blushed crimson.
"How can we help you?" he asked, laughing a little. His face couldn't hide his surprise as he turned around and saw the man standing in the doorway.
"Long time no see, Winry." Lieutenant Colonel Hughes greeted them with a smile.
"Mr. Hughes!" Winry nearly fell out of her chair as she jumped to her feet. "I'm sorry, I didn't recognize you without you uniform!"
His eyes shifted to land on Al. "And who's this?" he asked, innocently.
"He's my husband, Albert L'Engle." Winry stared at Al. He was speechless. "Albert, this is my friend, Lieutenant Colonel Maes Hughes."
"That's Major General Maes Hughes these days!" He grinned and shook Al's hand. Rather than shake and let go, he shook it and held it for a moment, staring intently into the young man's dark, brassy eyes. Al sweated a little under the scrutiny, but nodded to the taller man. "I'm glad to see that you're happy, Winry."
"Can I get you anything?" she asked, nervously, waving him to a nearby chair.
"No, no. Just passing through." He stayed close to the door and didn't unbutton his coat. "I'm sorry to hear about your grandmother…" Hughes got straight to the point. "I understand Mr. L'Engle here is an accomplished alchemist?"
Al shook his head. "I get by."
"There are rumors…" Hughes started, his eyes narrowing, "that Alphonse Elric is alive and doing alchemy in Risenburgh." Winry gasped. "Though no one believes them, of course," he added.
Al's face darkened. They'd gotten away with the ruse for so long. All the townsfolk were convinced since most of them hardly remembered what Alphonse Elric looked like. None of their friends from the military had ever seen his face before, so Al hadn't been afraid to travel and get recognized. He'd even been on a train two seats away from Major Armstrong a few summers back and had no problem at all. The large, imposing man seemed happy to have the company, and Al was glad that he could talk to his friend as 'Albert' and not have his cover blown. What would they do now?
"Please sir," Al muttered darkly. "Do not speak of the Elrics. It upsets my wife. She was their dear friend, you see."
"I apologize for my rudeness," Hughes bowed his head slightly. "It's been such a long time…" He turned to go, but kept his eye on 'Albert'. "Alicia is nine years old, now."
Hughes got what he wanted: a reaction. The light in Al's eyes that sparked when he heard about his daughter was all he needed. He walked to the nearby bookshelf and pulled two paperbacks off of the wall. "A few years ago I stood in this room and was introduced to a young boy." Hughes turned the spines to face the couple. The first book was "The Stranger" by Albert Camus, the second: "An Acceptable Time" by Madeline L'Engle. He smirked, knowing he was 100% right.
The L'Engles were pale as ghosts. "I will report this rumor as false." Hughes smiled as he saw the color come back to their cheeks. "I'm so sorry we lost Edward, but so very glad, Al… It's good to see you, alive and well."
"Mr. Hughes…" Al sighed in relief. Hughes put his hands in his pockets and turned to go. Al and Winry followed him to the door.
"Ah! Almost forgot," Hughes said and reached into the inside breast pocket of his jacket. He handed Al an envelope. "A present from the President."
"The President?" Al asked and took it from him.
"Yeah," Hughes groaned. "You thought Mustang's head was huge before… Fffff…" When Al hesitated to open the letter, Winry tapped her foot and yanked it away from him.
Al gaped. "Mustang is the president?!"
"You guys are really out in the boonies, you know that?"
"Ah!" Winry shouted in surprise. "Al, look!" She stretched out the parchment for him to see.
Al grasped the document and read the fine calligraphy, "It's a certificate of identification for Albert L'Engle!" Winry hugged him as he stared at it in amazement.
"Roy says, 'live your life'." Hughes shrugged and put on his hat.
Grateful tears came to Al's eyes. "We'll do that, thank you," he said and hugged Winry back. "We'll do just that."
End. Thanks to Leslie G for the beta and Yelena Z for the title.
[031904-032304 rev 1 042904 beta1 050504 beta2 071504]