The Light in the Upstairs Window

By D.M. Evans

Disclaimer - not mine, all characters belong to Hiromu Arakawa et al and funimition. I don't make a profit, heck I probably lose money taking away time I should have been working.

Rating - FRT

Time line - Sort of goes AR during "Words of Farewell" (so certain characters don't die), probably several months after Winry repairs Ed's arm after Scar got to it

Pairing - Ed/Winry

Summary - When Winry goes along on an investigation, things become complicated

Author's Note – Thanks to Silvrethorn for the beta Written as a holiday present. Happy Yule Evil Little Dog

Chapter One

It was easy to get lost in Central. She was a simple country girl. Well, maybe not so simple. When she was home, Winry found herself missing the culture the city offered, the great shops and the neat things to see, as if she were somehow ingrained with them and needed them, in spite of the fact she could actually count on one hand all her trips to the big city. When she was in the city, she missed home, all the green grass and open fields. She missed her grandmother and her dog and the comforting smells of her shop. Maybe that was the price she paid for being their friend, for following them and checking up on them; this sense of dislocation. Still, it was worth it.

Winry didn't want to leave the warm cocoon of her sheets but she wanted to get an early start on the day. Besides, she'd feel guilty if she imposed on the Hugheses for breakfast as well as a place to stay. She told Gracia she was going to go cook for the boys, even if she wasn't a hundred percent sure the barracks had a kitchenette.

Winry belted her coat on tighter as she headed into the winter wind. Ed didn't even know she was around unless Al had told him last night. She had been met by Gracia and Elicia at the train station. When Gracia brought her home, Colonel Mustang had been at their house talking to Lieutenant Colonel Hughes. She couldn't quite remember what Mustang had said to Hughes about Al the night before but the upshot was Al was far more mature than his older brother. While she wasn't sure that was true, she could just imagine Ed's reaction if he had heard it. He would have had one of those screaming fits that did seem to make Al look more mature. Still, Ed was so cute when he did that. His pale skin flushed and the gold of his eyes deepened. Of course, his mouth was an open sewer with the language that spilled out of it. If his mother could only hear her very little boy now.

Hughes' directions to the Elric's on-base housing were dead on and she easily found the enormous place. Al was outside feeding a kitten. She could have sworn he was smiling as he stroked the little furry creature.

"Morning, Al."

"You're up early, Winry. Don't tell Ed. He says I can't keep cats," Al said as the kitten decided to play attack his hand.

"Your brother is no fun sometimes, Al. Your secret is safe with me. Why don't you bring it in for some milk? You guys have a communal kitchenette, don't you?" Winry asked, thinking she remembered seeing one. After all, hungry soldiers needed some place to go snack when the mess hall was closed.

Al nodded.

"I'll go start Ed some breakfast."

As Winry headed inside, she heard an upstairs window fly open and Ed screaming to Al to quit playing with the kitten. Hearing Al clanging along behind her, she assumed he was doing the smart thing and ignoring his bratty older brother.

She didn't mind so much making breakfast even if she was the guest in town. She'd need to make a lot because the Full Metal Alchemist was apparently a bottomless pit. Unfortunately this wasn't home where Gallia, two doors down, gave them all the eggs they could possibly want and she had tubs of Nellie's sweet butter. Still, Ed had a wealthy enough stipend from the state that she needn't worry and she looted the little ice chest. She quickly started scrambling eggs with some exotic cheese she'd never heard of when Ed stumbled in.

"Al, you can't keep ..." he froze, his eyes widening.

Winry guessed Al hadn't had a chance to tell Ed she had arrived late last night while Ed was at the library embroiled in his studies. Al had probably fallen asleep before Ed got home or whatever soul bound armor actually did instead of truly sleeping. Or, more likely, Ed had passed out exhausted the moment he came home.

Ed had apparently been in a rush to get downstairs and make sure his brother didn't bring in the stray. He was still wearing only the ratty boxers he apparently slept in. Their ragged hem brushed just at the level of the scars around the juncture of his automail leg. His blond hair wasn't braided back and was doing a good imitation of a rat's nest.

"Winry! What are you doing here?" Ed flushed, trying to smooth the hay pile on his head.

She wasn't sure if the crimson on his cheeks was because he was mostly naked in front of a girl or if it was because he was ashamed of his ruined body. Winry had known a lot of people needing prosthetics felt that way, but this was Ed. She'd know him forever. She'd seen him in swim trunks every bit as revealing as his boxers but in that moment Winry understood; they were no longer kids that had grown up rough and tumble together. She wasn't seeing Ed as a boy but as the cute young man he was becoming. Somewhere along the lines, things had changed. Maybe he should have shown better sense and dressed before running through the barracks to harass his brother.

"Didn't Al tell you? I got in last night. Colonel Mustang called me saying you needed attention," Winry said, dumping eggs into the sizzling pan.

"Al!" Ed bellowed, trying to hurriedly braid up his hair without success. "I don't need any help, Winry. I'm fine."

"Mustang said you've been limping the last two times he's seen you." Winry's eyes were drawn to the inside of Ed's real leg, not out of any sensual curiosity but with the practiced eye of someone who worked with patients. Bruises dotted his knee and ankle from the automail banging into it in his sleep. At least with the automail there'd be no chafing and sores at the ends of the stumps.

Ed turned away when he caught her looking. "I'm not limping."

"Yes, you are, brother," Al said, splashing milk into a saucer for the kitten.

"It's not a bad thing, Ed. It probably just means you're growing and one leg is longer than the other," Winry said brightly then tried to swallow her grin. "Or in your case, maybe you're getting shorter."

Ed's skin went scarlet and his pupils dilated. His body quivered a bit just before the eruption. "Who are you calling a little good for nothing pipsqueak, you scrap metal tinkerer?"

"Ed, maybe you shouldn't stamp your feel like that. It makes your boxers gape," Al fretted as the gray tabby lapped up her treat.

Winry thought Ed was going to die on the spot. He turned an even darker shade of red then fled upstairs, towards his room with a strangled cry. She laughed. "Don't take too long, Ed, or your breakfast will get cold," she called after him then turned to Al as she started dishing out breakfast for herself. "How he doesn't drive you insane, Al, I'll never know."

"He's not so bad." Al sat down on the floor with the kitten, leaving the little table for Winry and Ed. "Except when he's yelling at the Colonel or at anyone he thinks is looking at him sideways or calls him short." Al looked as contrite as a suit of armor could. "Or when he's sleeping with his stomach out like he doesn't care he could catch cold."

"Ed's lucky to have a brother like you watching out for him." Winry bit her bottom lip trying to keep from shedding the tears that suddenly sprung into her eyes. Poor sweet Al. He always did have such a big heart. Ed did as well; only he played shell games with his heart under the angry little carapace he had made for himself. Ed had less reason than Al to be bitter. Ed's rage came from his sense of guilt over what happened, Winry knew that much. At least Ed could go and do things that Al couldn't, like eat, grow, have a girlfriend. Only Ed wouldn't have that last thing, not until Al could. Something told her that much and yet that only made her want to try all the more. Maybe it wasn't Central that made her feel lost. Maybe it was Ed.

Ed wasn't sure why having Winry in the dorm made him so uneasy. He told himself it was because of his lifestyle. Just look at his bedroom. One neatly made bed, Al's, and one torn up bed, his, a couch and a table with books scattered all over it were all they had to their names. It was barely possible to tell anyone even lived in the unadorned little room. The life of a State Alchemist was a very dangerous one, always on the road, no ties to anything. Al had said once that understanding this reality, Ed should be less hard on their dad. Ed knew his brother had a point but he didn't feel so kindly about it. He wasn't ready to forgive the bastard.

It had been distressing, not having their dad around. It hurt more that when they needed him the most, he was nowhere to be found. Al suggested that maybe their father was dead, too, since no one knew where he was, in spite of Mustang and others looking for him. Al seemed almost content with that scenario. Maybe it hurt less than thinking their dad didn't care.

Whatever it was, Ed decided he didn't give a damn. All he knew was he wasn't going to turn out like their father. He wasn't going to leave a wife and kids behind while he roamed the land doing the State's business. Not that he was even thinking about that because girls weren't in the equations that filled his mind. Al came first. Maybe once he and his brother were fixed he could quit the military and then he'd have time for girls.

The problem was Winry dredged up those feeling he wanted buried. It didn't help that he could remember him and Al both doing things to get Winry's attention growing up. Did Al still think of her like that? What did Winry think of them? As brothers? As something more? He couldn't allow himself to even think of Winry as something more than a sister until Al was flesh again and had his fair chance with her.

He sat on the edge of the bed and started pulling on his pants. Ed paused, skimming a thumb over the bruises. Winry had seen them, to his chagrin. Of course she had seen them before. She was his mechanic, after all. It was somehow different this time. Maybe because there was nothing clinical about her seeing him in his kitchen. He picked at the callous on the inside of his knee where it rubbed against the automail in his sleep. He usually tried to sleep on his back to keep down the bruises and sores from the pressure of his prosthesis but when the nightmares came he was all over the bed.

That was the other dangerous thing about Winry. It was easy to ignore other girls. Who would want a boyfriend who was only half a man? Would other girls be repulsed by what was left of him? It was easier to live life not thinking about how they'd react to him, less complicated that way. He just put girls out of mind, suspecting he wouldn't measure up anyhow.

Winry, on the other hand, didn't care about that. Half his body was her art. She had crafted him with her own talented hands and loved every gear and electrical hook up, every piece of sleek cool metal. To her, he was beautiful as he was. Ed suspected she honestly didn't want him to get his natural limbs back. She was that enamored of his metal parts.

Ed traced the white rough line of scars on his thigh, trying not to think about how he ended up this way. He finished pulling on his shorts – since Winry would want to work on him – and then his pants, flushing a bit as the realization that Winry had seen him naked in the past. Maybe it didn't count since he'd been hemorrhaging his life away at the time. It was sort of like the only time he had seen a naked woman was when he delivered Elicia and the less thought about that the better. It still made him shudder and be thankful he was male.

Ed choked back a laugh as he recalled another time of him being nude in front of Winry. He'd been fighting with Al when they were little kids swimming down at the pond. Al managed to accidentally pants him. Winry had laughed and innocently wondered at the differences between boys and girls. He told her there were no differences and hers had broken off in an accident back when she was really little. She had cried for hours. Was it wrong to still be mildly amused by it?

After finishing dressing, Ed took a brush to his snarled hair and fought the thick gold locks into his signature braid. He was very happy the military didn't enforce regulation hairstyles. As Ed thumped back to the communal kitchenette, he thought maybe Mustang was right and he was a little off balance. Why hadn't he noticed? Probably because it wasn't enough that his pants seemed too short, damn it. Even Winry was bigger than him now. He'd have to hang out with Granny Pinako just to look tall. He could be a drink stand for Major Armstrong, short as he was. Ed stamped the rest of the way down the stairs, mad at himself for thinking it.

Winry looked up with a smile as he sat down. Ed tucked into breakfast without a word since it smelled so good. Savory eggs excited his taste buds just in time for the hot sauce mixed into the scramble to kick his tongue.

"Mmm, Granny's special hot sauce," he purred before taking another enormous bite.

"I remembered that you loved it and brought you a little bottle. I figured you might want something to pick up the mess hall food," Winry said, brightly

"You're the best, Winry." Ed shoveled more food in then cast a longing eye at the cast iron pan on the little stove top.

Winry shook her head and dished out the extra eggs. "I don't know where you put it, Ed. I know that leg isn't hollow."

Ed gave her a baleful look but his mouth was too full for one of his usual outbursts. Besides she had a heavy pan in hand and probably wouldn't hesitate to deck him.

"Eat up, Ed. You ready to get started on the measurements?" Winry finished her breakfast.

"Depends. You gonna forget some of my screws again?" Ed asked, having finally figured out why she had been so upset that time after Lab Five. He hadn't noticed the missing screw until she had fixed him right and he saw the restored symmetry of the screw pattern.

Winry's lips thinned. "Want to lost more limbs?"

"Brother!" Al cut into the response forming on Ed's lips then turned to Winry. "What else do you have planned for your trip, Winry?"

"Outside of taking care of your rude brother, I thought I'd get in some more shopping. Maybe get Granny some good tobacco for her birthday, which you boys should at least send her a note for. She gets so disappointed when she doesn't hear from you," Winry said, thinking Granny wasn't the only one.

"Sorry," Al said, cradling the kitten. "We'll try to do better."

Ed knew they wouldn't. This was why they were better off alone. They had so many demands on their time that months rolled by without them even noticing. Winry deserved better.

"It's okay, Al," Winry said, going to wash the few dishes she had dirtied.

Ed allowed himself a moment of domestic fantasy, seeing her taking care of him. What would life had been like if their mother hadn't died and he and Al had stayed in Rizenbool? It was rather frightening because he couldn't remember his childhood dreams of what he wanted to grow up to be. Winry would still be an automail expert. He'd probably still be an alchemist but without the resources he had as a state alchemist. Would he be able to give it all up later - as much as he disliked being a dog of the military - once he was healed? Could he give up the amplifying watch and the wonderful library and his money? Do 'rich' men willingly become poor? He shuddered, suddenly cold.

"Brother?" Al's voice carried worry with it.

Ed shook his head, ticked that he was so transparent. "Yeah, Al?"

"You okay?"

"Just not looking forward to this, no offense, Winry." Ed got up and took his plate and utensils to the sink.

Winry took them with soapy hands. "Wuss."

"Sadist."

Al just sighed as if despairing that Ed would ever learn manners, and headed outside with his kitten.

"Did you encourage Al to bring that kitten in here?" Ed scowled, watching Winry work.

"Al deserves things that make him happy. Everyone does," she replied, rinsing her hands.

"We're not here enough to have a pet, Winry. Al knows that," Ed said, trying to hide that her words stung. Did she think he didn't want his brother to be happy?

"And does it hurt to show a stray kindness when you are here?" she shot back.

An uncomfortable silence stretched out between them like thick taffy. She knew Ed wanted to argue. Ed knew she had a valid point.

"So where do you want to do this so I can get started?" Winry asked to break the quiet.

"Probably be best if I stretched out on the couch or something." Ed looked at her then at the ceiling as if pondering what rights he had to take visitors upstairs but Winry didn't have a workshop to offer up. Hughes and Mustang hadn't told her yet where she'd be working. "I'll go get Al."

The presence of Al seemed to give legitimacy to their being upstairs and Winry knew they were both being silly. She was here to fix up Ed, nothing more. She looked around the brother's depressing room with its ugly green couch and funky, stale boy smell. In spite of the cold, they needed to open a window or burn a candle or something or maybe just do some laundry.

"Actually Ed, it'll be easier for me to get around if you're lying on the bed. Al, you take down his measurements as I give them to you. We'll hold them for ransom later." Winry smirked.

"Who are you calling so puny he'd give a king's ransom so no one would know just how tall he is?" Ed barked.

Winry pushed him down on his bed. "Get your boots off. Who know how many inches you're trying to add there."

She got another baleful look as Ed obeyed. Al's bed creaked as he sat on it, tablet in hand. Winry took her measuring tape out of her pocket. "Bridge your back first then lay flat then pull your knees to your chest."

When Ed complied, she leaned on his legs, feeling his hip muscles relaxing and shifting, which would let her get his true leg length. Ed was likely to be the tense type, which would throw off the reading.

A sharp rap sounded on the door and it opened before anyone could move. Mustang came in and somehow Winry felt very foolish and naughty laying on Ed like she was, his metal knee between her breasts. Ed turned so red hot he could have caught the bedding on fire. He struggled under her.

"You sit up and tense your hip flexors, Ed, and I'll have Al sit on you!" she warned, getting off him. She grabbed Ed's ankles and pulled his legs straight.

"I think he's fidgeting," Mustang said, leaning on the door frame. He looked amused.

"He's always fidgeting," Winry replied as she started to measure. Having Mustang there was actually easier on her. She could be an expert taking care of a patient instead of a girl touching the inside of Ed's thigh. Having Al around hadn't been quite the relief she had been hoping for.

"What do you want, Mustang?" Ed rumbled and Winry thought she heard Al sigh in frustration.

"You're my responsibility, Fullmetal. I just want to be sure that there's nothing seriously wrong with you," Mustang replied as Winry called out a measurement for the left leg. Ed gave her a plaintive look, as if how little his legs were would come as a surprise to his commanding officer.

"I'm fine," Ed said and Winry gave Al the other measurement.

"So how much did he shrink, Miss Rockbell?" Mustang smirked.

"About a half inch." She smiled back.

Ed's outburst was so high pitched and garbled it would have confused bats. Winry concentrated on avoiding his flailing limbs.

"Ed, if you hit me, I'll take both limbs and Al can cart you around until I'm done making adjustments," Winry said sternly and Ed flopped back on the bed melodramatically.

"You better listen to her, Brother," Al said.

"Has he always been like this, Miss Rockbell?" Mustang asked, running a hand through his dark hair.

"Always," she said, crossing her arms so that she was hugging her shoulders, indicating for Ed to do the same.

Ed did then held out his arms, shoulders now loosened, so she could measure them. "You're not funny. Is that all you wanted, Colonel?"

"Actually I wanted to ask Miss Rockbell when she anticipated completing your repairs. I have a job for you," Mustang said.

"Oh, no more than a day," Winry said. "But Mr. Hughes hasn't shown me where I'll be working yet."

"We'll remedy that immediately," Mustang assured her.

"What's our assignment now?" Ed sounded dejected.

"You're heading for Waukrio, a mountain town," Mustang replied.

"It's winter and you're sending us into the mountains? Thanks for nothing," Ed grumbled as Winry's fingers dug into his torso, testing the edges of the automail's anchor.

Mustang's lips skinned back. "Some people would consider that a treat. Besides, there are rumors of a machine being used to process people."

"They're trying to make a philosopher stone," Ed gasped, feeling sick and exhilarated at the same time.

"That's what you, Alphonse and Miss Rockbell are going to find out. Miss Rockbell, we'd like to use your mechanical expertise if you're willing." Roy said very solicitously.

Winry's eyes lit up at the prospect of a new machine to mess with. "Of course."

"No, Winry!" Ed protested, his face going pale. "You don't have the military's leash around your neck. You don't have to do this and he has no right to ask you." He jerked a thumb at Mustang.

"But if I can help, why shouldn't I?" Winry asked, already knowing Ed's answer. When would he learn she wasn't some delicate flower?

"Because it's dangerous. They're killing people. You're not going," Ed said, his eyes hot as molten gold. "And that's final."

"How dare you make decisions for me, Edward Elric?" Winry felt the heat rising off her face.

"Yes, Fullmetal, you're acting like an overprotective boyfriend." Mustang smiled slyly.

Ed went as red as the stone he coveted. Al leapt in with a 'We just don't want anything to happen to Winry," before his brother could say something he might regret.

"Nor do I. I trust two alchemists can keep her safe and I imagine Miss Rockbell is very capable in her own right. Fullmetal's correct. I can't order you to go, Miss Rockbell, nor can he forbid you to do anything. The choice is yours," Roy said, sounding very slippery to Ed.

"Then I chose to go," Winry said, surprising no one.

"Thank you. Come along. I'll show you to your workshop," Mustang said.

"I have to stop by the Hugheses to get Ed's replacement limb," Winry said. "Or Al really will be carrying him around."

Mustang nodded. "Yes, of course. I'm certain Alphonse has better things to do than to cart his brother around like a sack of flour all day."

"That's not funny." Ed got up off the bed and made a sad attempt to make it.

"No, it's really not. My apologies,' Roy said contritely, heading downstairs.

"This is a mistake, Winry," Ed hissed as they followed the colonel.

"It's mine to make," she replied stubbornly.

"Brother has a point, Winry. Our missions are usually dangerous," Al said as he brought up the rear.

"I know that, Al, but you could use my help with this machine. How much mechanics do either of you know?"

"Enough to get by without risking you," Ed insisted, his eyes still smoldering.

And she knew he was more than capable of stopping a machine with his alchemy but what frightened her was that if she didn't go Ed would be tempted to use the machine. "You're not going to scare me, Ed. Rockbells don't frighten easily. It's probably what got my parents killed," she said, regret edging into her tone.

Mustang stumbled a bit, his body tensing. He shook whatever it was off, leaving the teens exchanging glances. Winry almost thought she saw something bad in Ed's eyes but he looked away. Suddenly she was afraid to ask about it.

They retrieved Ed's replacement leg and Mustang showed her to her workshop. He had a cot provided for Ed and Winry was grateful for the consideration.

"Have a seat, Ed. I'm sorry but we didn't have any spare automail legs. You'll have to use a regular prosthesis," Winry said, apologetically.

Ed shrugged as he sat down. "I'll manage." He stared to remove his boot then paused, looking up at Mustang. She could see he didn't want to show any weakness in front of the older man.

"I have work to get to. If you need anything, Miss Rockbell, just send word," Mustang said.

"Thanks," she said and Mustang took his leave.

Ed kicked off his boots and skinned out of his pants. He laid back on the cot, feeling vulnerable in his shorts. He braced himself. Disengaging the automail hurt, not as much as hooking it up but enough. Winry's practiced fingers had the leg off fast. Pain radiated like fire along his nerves, making a sweat pop out all over his body. His testicles tightened and his stomach clenched. He took a deep rasping breath trying to calm himself while the pain dispersed. Al and Winry were quiet, letting him rest and recover. He almost wished that they'd talk and take his mind off the burning in his thigh. Besides, it was surreal watching Winry working with his leg like it was just a thing instead of a part of him. He couldn't quite divorce his mind from thinking that was a piece of him lying on the work bench.

Ed let his eyes close as the pain slowly faded into a minor thrum and then into an annoying buzzing itch. When he opened his eyes again, Al was quietly chatting to Winry and Ed's leg was already in parts. He sat up slowly, feeling unbalanced. His buttocks tightened, trying to stabilize him. Ed rubbed the stump of his leg but it only made the pins and needles feeling intensify. "I need to go talk to Mustang."

"Talk all you want, Ed. I'm still going," Winry said, not looking back at him.

"Winry, this is insane," Ed said, feeling his muscles twitch along his thigh as the confused nerves tried to move a part of him that was missing. He could feel both of his missing limbs, always aware of pains and itches that couldn't exist. There was no telling his brain that. Sometimes he'd wake up feeling like his arm or his leg was being shredded, the pain so real he had to fight the accompanying nausea so he wouldn't puke. Right now his brain was convinced he could wiggle toes that didn't exist. "You're not going."

Winry sighed, turning around wrench in hand. "Why are you so argumentative?"

Ed tensed, wondering if he needed to shield his head. "Me? You're the one doing all the arguing, isn't she, Al?"

"Are you telling me you and Al aren't good enough to keep me safe?" Winry asked before Al could respond.

Ed dug his fingers into his leg. He hated arguing with Winry but he couldn't seem to stop himself. "It's not that. No one on a mission like this can be entirely safe."

"That's true of anywhere, Ed. Do you remember Ani back home? Someone killed her after doing terrible things to her, in her own house. No one is ever entirely safe, Edward," Winry replied, setting aside her wrench. She picked up the above knee prosthesis and came over to Ed's cot.

"That's not the point," Ed said as she knelt between his legs.

"I think Winry knows the point, Brother," Al said, sounding resigned to the fact that Winry wasn't going to be discouraged.

Ed sighed, knowing he was lost but he was still going to try and side step all of this. He tensed feeling Winry's warm fingers on his skin. He quieted and watched her strap on the harness that would hold this lifeless replacement leg on.

"Sorry, Ed. This is going to be really hard for you to adjust to," she apologized, tightening the straps.

"It's okay. It's just for a day. I can handle it. I'm glad you came here to help out, Winry." Ed put a hesitant hand on her shoulder. "I just don't want anything to happen to you."

Winry smiled, getting to her feet. She gave his braid a playful yank. "And I appreciate it, Ed, but together we're a pretty good team. Just wait and see."

"I guess I have no choice." Ed waited for her to go back to work before trying to get up. He took a step, couldn't judge where the prosthetic foot was and fell. The harness cut into his thigh as he managed to catch himself before he landed on his face.

"Brother!" Al lumbered toward him.

"Ed, I told you this leg takes some getting used to," Winry said, worriedly. "Automail hooks into your nervous system but this leg doesn't. It requires muscle strength alone to lift it and move it forward. It takes practice, so go slow."

"I'm just not used to it but I'll be fine," Ed said as his brother put a steadying hand on his back. He wished he was sure of that. "Thanks, Al."

"Well, at least if you landed on your head, there's not much damage to be done." Winry tossed her long hair back.

"Oh, you're funny," Ed said, taking a smaller step this time, holding on to Al's arm. "We'll leave you to your work, Winry. It's kind of creepy looking at my leg just lying there."

"Creepy?" Winry looked offended.

"Maybe because it's mine," Ed added hurriedly. He didn't want her to get upset with him.

Winry just bobbed her head and went back to work. The brothers headed out into the city.

"Brother, maybe you should just go home and rest. We have a lot of books to go through," Al fretted as Ed hobbled slowly along, barely able to move the unfamiliar limb. "That leg is hard on you."

Ed nodded. It was hard. He was so accustomed to not even having to think about it. He just walked normally. Now he had to shift his hips and flick his thigh to move the prosthetic leg. Each step felt like his leg was going to give out. It was tiring. How people chose these things over automail he'd never know. "I have to talk to Mustang then we'll follow your suggestion, Al."

Al didn't say anything. He knew Ed would do whatever Ed wanted to do regardless of anything Al said or common sense might dictate. Ed was going to see Mustang no matter what Al thought about it. Al waited in the anteroom to Mustang's office with Havoc and Hawkeye. Ed regretted this move. He felt helpless and weak in front of everyone as he limped into Mustang's office. The Colonel didn't seem too surprised to see him.

He set aside his paperwork. "What can I do for you, Fullmetal?"

"Uninvite Winry," Ed said, simply.

"No."

Ed wasn't expecting Mustang to be reasonable but he also didn't expect to be monosyllabically dismissed. "You can't let her go. She could get hurt."

"She can be an asset to you," Mustang said, templing his hands on the desk. Ed wasn't used to seeing him bare-handed.

"I don't want to risk her," Ed argued, not sure what the best tactic would be.

"Do you think she would not go now, Edward? She'd be insulted if I told her that we no longer needed her assistance."

"I hate you for asking her," Ed grumbled.

Mustang gave him a most curious look. "Edward, it's time for you to learn you're not an island. You need to learn to accept help and work with others. It can make you stronger."

"I'm fine as is. Me and Al, we can handle things ourselves. It's better that way. You don't get it. I don't need help," Ed said, his face hot. How dare Mustang suggest he couldn't handle things on his own? "This is my burden. I did this to me and my brother. I'm the one who has to fix it, even if it means running into danger looking for that damn stone."

"You don't get it, Fullmetal. You aren't doing it alone. You've had help. You've thrown help back in the faces of those who want very much to see you succeed. Hasn't it ever occurred to you that more minds on a problem can exponentially increase your chances of solving it? I know it's hard to trust people, especially where something as powerful as the philosopher's stone is concerned but I should think you can at least trust a childhood friend," Mustang said and Ed tried to block out those words because they made a sense that he didn't want to hear. What if Mustang was right and he had cost himself and Al years by isolating them from people who could help? He couldn't think about that. "You've come a long way, Fullmetal and you have no idea how far you might yet have to go. Learn to accept a helping hand."

"Did it have to be Winry you chose to teach me this lesson?" Ed moaned, unable to find a way to argue with Mustang.

The subtle haunted look on Mustang's face surprised Ed. "Actually, Edward, yes."

Ed blinked. "I don't understand why."

Mustang got up and put a hand on Ed's shoulder. The boy trembled just a bit, confused by this uncharacteristic familiarity. "You will. You'll keep her safe, Edward. Trust yourself and trust her."

Ed was utterly confused by the whole exchange. It made him uncomfortable. "You're sure?"

Mustang sat back down behind his desk, looking more like his usual self. "Yes."

Ed just wandered back out, not sure what to say. He stumbled right past Al.

"Brother?" Al sounded concerned.

"Can we go home now, Al?" Ed asked softly, feeling suddenly cold.

"Of course, Brother."

Ed wished he only knew what to do. He didn't trust Mustang but he would have to do so now. Ed wished he could shake free of his anxiety but it was as close as skin. All he could do was go home and lose himself in his research.