Summary - He was always pretending, trying to be him even when he didn't want to be. It was inevitable, inescapable, yet still, somehow he never seemed to measure up to the real thing.
It wasn't supposed to happen. He hardly knew her and she belonged to another, so it wasn't supposed to happen. But the moment he'd seen her as he stepped off the train platform it had already been too late. Blond hair and white skin, hardly darkened by the time she spent in the sun; blue eyes that held a hint of sadness despite the soft smile playing on her lips. Lavender coveralls hung haphazardly from her waist revealing a black tube top and bare midriff.
Her eyes had met his and the soft smile grew, tugging the corners of her lips even as her eyes darkened with heavier emotions.
"You must be Russell, Ed told me all about you." She said warmly, her tone a stark contrast to the icy despair he had just seen in her eyes. And he had wanted to tell her that it was alright to let go, that she didn't have to pretend with him, that she didn't have to be happy and friendly she could just be hurt. But he couldn't tell her that, it was too personal and though they shared great loss they were not close, and so he had smiled a smooth, confident, grin and responded in kind.
"And you must be Winry." He extended his hand as they approached one another and when she took it he was impressed with the strength of her grip. He might have met her once before, years ago when little mattered to him but the memory of his father and the safety of his brother. If he had he couldn't recall. Not surprising really; it would have been during the final weeks of the fight against the humonculi, when Ed had been running from the military and everything was a tangled mess of questions and revelations that no one wanted.
But he remembered her – he remembered the things Ed had said about her, and what he had not said but had been unable to hide. He remembered Al's adoration of the automail mechanic. He thought he remembered Fletcher saying something about her and he tried to remember when Fletcher would have spent time with her. But that memory too was lost in the dark haze of half remembered battles and long forgotten dreams.
"Where's Fletcher?" the light question had stirred him as she tried to peak around his tall frame.
"Um," it had taken him a moment to recollect himself, "Oh, he's in Central. He likes the Library." He confided with a grin. He liked the library himself; knowledge had always been his weakness, he was obsessed with it.
Her brow had winged upwards in an adorable quirk as she straightened to look up into his face, "He was sidetracked by the Library and you weren't?"
Apparently she had been quite serious when she had said that Ed had told her all about him. Years of practice kept his face from flushing at her open acknowledgment of his most embarrassing flaw and he smirked down at her instead. "Some things are more important than books." Actually, Fletcher had been doing research, but Russell hadn't felt like enlightening her. This was more fun.
Her cheeks had flushed a light pink as she darted her eyes to the ground beside their feet nervously. It was obvious that she wasn't quite sure how to interpret that statement. He had fought a chuckle. He could see what Ed saw in this girl. She was fascinating – her emotions riding so close to the surface she was as easy to read as his beloved tomes.
She had started shifting awkwardly and he had taken pity on her. "Are we walking?" he inquired casually.
"Um, yeah." She made an effort to appear normal, but he had seen the way her hands caught against one another, clasping before her and knew she was still flustered. She was truly adorable.
"Lead the way." He extended an arm with a shallow, gallant, bow, and then fell easily into step beside her. The trip had been quiet but not overly long and Russell found the silence comforting as he observed the countryside. It was spring and all around them was color and life, something he had missed living in the city most of his life.
She was watching him out of the corner of her blue eyes, trying not to stare, but he could feel her gaze. He had smirked, not bothering to hide the expression. He knew he was attractive. Tall and lean with hair the color of summer wheat and an easy smile, he was often the focus of feminine attention. He enjoyed it, played to it with an easy familiarity few men ever learned. His nature was teasing and gentle, but somehow intense in a way that drew women to him. He never took his flirtations seriously, and he never let them develop. He didn't have time for a relationship, and he didn't believe in flings. If he was going to give himself to a woman, if he was going to let her give herself to him, then it was going to mean something. But a little light flirtation never hurt anyone as far as he was concerned.
Still, he had known better than to tease her. He might not have been an alchemic genius like some others, but he was still incredibly intelligent. Yes, she found him attractive, unsettlingly so apparently, but that didn't mean she would appreciate his attentions or that they would be appropriate. It was in her eyes, in the way she had said Edward's name. She loved him, even after all this time.
Russell respected that. Even if he hadn't respected Ed he still would have respected her feelings. Playing with people was not something he did.
They had almost reached her home when she finally broke the silence.
"So, um," she had been fidgeting again, and somehow it struck him as uncharacteristic. She was the kind of person who laughed and yelled and expressed herself freely, even when she wished she wouldn't. It was strange to see her so uncertain. "Um… so they sent you to fix the river?" she had finally managed, her expression a little confused.
He shook his head and smiled at her to try and put her at ease, "the bridge." He had corrected her. "I'm supposed to take a look at the bridge and see how much work it'll take."
"Oh." Her brow wrinkled as she accepted this and he had known why. It had been years since the bridge had been destroyed, along with a great deal of the countryside, when Mustang and his people had come after Ed. In all that time no one had ever been sent to help rebuild it.
"Mustang's orders." He had explained and she had nodded as if that cleared everything up, which, really, it had.
In the confusion that had followed the death of the Fuhrer and the revelation of the Ishbalan scandal no one had bothered to look into making restorations to the people of Resembool, or anywhere else for that matter. There was too much damage, too much scandal, too much uncertainty. The whole world seemed to be in uproar and not even the townspeople had bothered to repair all the damage. There didn't seem to be much of a point.
It truth they were all still reeling in shock. Everything they had ever known had turned out to be lies and half-truths. For a time life had become a monotonous chore, something they simply endured. They had not recovered enough to make it anything more.
It had not been until Mustang had returned and taken over that things had started to get done. It seemed that making his peace, however strange it had been, with the Full Metal Alchemist had been all the man needed to lay his inner demons to rest. Rebuilding the country had given him purpose and he plunged into the task with gusto and determination. In the two years since Edward and Alphonse Elric had gone over to the other side a lot had happened in Amestris, fortunately most of it good. It was a time of rebuilding and restoration and it was finally making its way to Resembool and the other small villages that dotted the countryside.
"Alone?" again her voice had broken the silence, a little more insistent now.
He had nodded, humming his affirmation, "For now." His boot caught on a stone and he swiped it out of the way. "If I need help later," he had shrugged, trailing off expansively. If he assessed the situation and decided that he needed help he would call Central and they would send it. But he was a powerful alchemist in his own right, even if he wasn't a State Alchemist. "Fletcher might come out if he finishes his research early enough."
She had smiled then, warm and bright and completely sincere, and he felt his heart skip strangely. He shook his head to dislodge the unfamiliar feeling. "I'd like to see him again." She had confessed quietly.
"He'd like that too." He had smiled down at her and was surprised to see that they had both stopped walking. She seemed to realize this as well and looked away nervously before resuming their journey. They were almost at the home she and her grandmother shared when she stopped him with a tug to his arm and spoke once more.
"I'm glad you're staying with us." She had murmured, her gaze straying away from him, her cheeks flushed in embarrassment. "It's almost like… almost like he's here again." She whispered.
And somehow, even though they were nothing alike, that had made sense to him. After all, he'd spent the better part of his life trying to fill the shoes of others, first his father, and then Ed. He let his hand trail down and take hers, giving it a reassuring squeeze. It would be alright, somehow.
He hadn't expected them to fall into routine so quickly. Didn't understand how just a week in this place could make him wonder if he had ever been without it, if he had ever been without her. It was a strange sensation, this feeling of belonging. He was unaccustomed to it, but it was not unwelcome. It was easy to befriend her, easy to get used to her, easier still to let her lean on him, rely on him. It felt good, knowing that someone needed him. And there was never a doubt in his mind that Winry needed him.
The first time she had cried he hadn't quite known what to do.
They had been sitting by the river in the late afternoon three days after his arrival. The bridge, as it turned out, would need to be almost completely rebuilt, but he could handle it on his own. It would take some time, but it wasn't as though he had somewhere else to be. He was no one's dog, least of all Roy Mustang's. He helped because he wanted to, because it gave him purpose, but it was alright to take it easy every now and again. Winry had asked him why it mattered at all. They had gotten on without the bridge just fine for nearly five years. But it was the principle of it, and besides, Russell liked fixing things.
She had leaned forward, her fingertips trailing in the water, her gaze focused on the ripples, though she didn't appear to see them.
"Do you ever wonder-" She choked, stopped and swallowed harshly, and he just reclined back on his elbows and watched her, allowing her to gather herself. "Do you ever wonder what it would have been like if none of this had ever happened? If there had been no legend of the stone, no Fuhrer Bradely, no humonculus?" There was an edge of bitterness in her tone that he knew well, but he also knew that it would do her no good.
"Well, I wouldn't be here now." He had teased her gently, smiling faintly at her profile beside him.
She swallowed convulsively, pulling back to rest her palms on the grassy bank, "No, I suppose not." She had agreed quietly.
For long moments they had sat in silence, he studying her and she studying the horizon. Finally he raised himself and hunched forward, letting his elbows support his weight against his knees.
"It's alright to be sad, Winry." He hadn't looked at her, but rather at the sunlight dancing on the water, giving her the privacy he felt she needed as he offered his advice. "But Winry, don't let it break you. We can't change our past, only our future."
She hadn't responded, and for a moment he feared that he had said too much, been too insensitive. And then he had heard her shaky intake of breath.
"You're right." Her voice had been muffled, and when he turned his head to look sideways at her he saw that she had drawn up her knees and buried her face in them, hugging her arms around them as if to protect herself. "I know you're right." She sniffled a bit and he knew she was fighting tears. An unfamiliar pain settled in his heart and he had to resist the urge to draw her into his arms. "I know, but," a hiccupped sob, "I miss him, Russell. I miss him so much." She had started crying in earnest then, shoulders wracking with each sob and each gasped breath, and he wasn't quite sure what to do. He only knew that it hurt to see her in such pain.
So he had done the only thing he could. He had placed his hand gently on her shoulder and offered the only comfort he had, "It's okay Winry. It's okay to cry."
She had stilled beneath his touch and he was certain he had overstepped some unspoken boundary. And then she was looking up at him with tear streaked cheeks and the look in her eyes was so heart-wrenching that he almost gave in and wiped them away, almost drew her to him and whispered things that would have revealed far too much. In the end though it turned out that it wasn't his choice to make.
She had thrown herself against him, calloused mechanics hands fisting in his white shirt. "Why does it hurt so much?" she sobbed into his chest, her tears staining the pristine fabric, but he had not complained, only slipped his arms around her, cradling her to him. He rested his cheek on the top of her head and whispered soothing sounds as he let his fingers trail comfortingly up and down her back. "Oh, Ed! Edward!" she sobbed, muffling her cries against him and tightening her hold. "I miss you so much!"
"Shhhh." He had whispered, fingers inadvertently tangling in her hair. He did not remove them. He took a guilty pleasure in the way she stilled under his touch, drawing comfort from his embrace, her sobs eventually quieting to sniffles and then to nothing at all. He didn't understand it, how it could feel so right, and yet so wrong, to hold her like this, to comfort her. Soon her breathing became deep and even, her body limp against him and he knew that she was sleeping, exhausted from the emotional torrent that had swept through her. He wondered if she had ever allowed herself to cry over her loss before. As gently as possible he shifted her, turning her in his arms and standing to carry her into the house. As he had laid her in her bed his hand had trailed lightly over her features and he wondered at this strange mix of tenderness and uncertainty that she raised in him. He hardly knew her, it made no sense, and yet one thing he knew – he could not bear to see her in pain like this and he would do everything in his power to make it go away.
They had grown close over the weeks of his stay, spending most of their time together when they weren't working. His presence was familiar to her now, and comforting and she gratefully immersed herself in his gentle care. And yet he always held himself distant, always kept a part of himself hidden from her. He carried propriety with him like a shield even when they were alone and there was no one to ask questions, no one to suspect. So the first time he had touched her of his own volition she had been startled. She was always the one who came to him, broken and crying. He never pushed her away, but he had never sought physical contact either.
It was nothing inappropriate, hardly even a touch really. They had been standing on the porch, watching the setting sun and the breeze had tangled in her hair, brushing it against his skin. Slowly, as if in awe, his hand had raised, catching the lock gently between his fingers; transfixed he had stared at it as he sifted it through them like water, surprised at its cool softness.
Her soft voice had pulled him from his trancelike state as effectively as cold water. He dropped her hair as if burned and turned from her.
"Russell?" gentle fingers flitted lightly over his forearm below the rolled up sleeve and he closed his eyes to shut out the feelings her touch stirred.
It was foolish to feel what he did. She was in love with another and he refused to take Ed's place again. Not like this.
Bitterly he wondered if he would always walk in Ed's shadow, if he was destined to forever dog the steps of one he could never quite measure up to.
"I'm going inside." His tone was cool and he knew he was probably confusing her, maybe even hurting her, with his sudden withdrawal, but at the moment it didn't matter. He had to get away from her.
He had almost left that night, but somehow he couldn't bring himself to do it.
The next time had been easier.
Pinako had gone into town, probably to buy food because if she'd been going for tools or parts Winry would not have been at the house when he had come back early and exhausted. Winry had an obsession for all things mechanical, a love affair he had jokingly called it, earning him a playful punch in the shoulder that was surprisingly hard coming from someone so much smaller than he.
He was tired and sore and he'd probably overexerted himself, but he told himself that it was for a good cause. He was rebuilding things that were broken, restoring the life of this village.
And it helped him to forget.
But that day he'd gone too far. He was weary through and through, a dull ache seeping through to his bones. He ran a hand over his face, trying to pry his eyes open and wipe the sleepy expression away. If he looked tired they would ask questions, and at that moment he just wanted to go upstairs to his room and crawl into bed. He hadn't had the chance.
Winry had been in the front room, tweaking some mechanism or another in Den's mechanical leg. Russell had to admit that the dog had the patience of a saint. He had only stopped for a moment before moving quietly toward the stairs. It had been his hope that she would be too preoccupied to notice him, caught up in the raptures of her work. But just as he reached the bottom step Den's ears had pricked up and the dog's sad eyes focused on him. Curious she had turned and seen him.
"Russell, I didn't hear you come in. Just a minute." Quickly she snapped the casing of Den's upper leg back together. "We'll finish you later." She muttered to the animal, and he had just yawned and rested his head on his paws. Dusting her hands briskly against one another she stood and approached him. Wearily he watched her, wishing he could go upstairs, knowing that he couldn't ignore her. He had tried, those first few days after he had realized what this feeling was, but he had found it impossible. She was a drug and he was addicted – no, she was water and he was dying of thirst. Yes, that metaphor was much more apt. Because a drug, an addiction, one could master, the need for water one could not.
It had only taken a moment for her assessing gaze to measure him up. "What's wrong?" she had reached for him, to press her hand to his cheek and he had almost backed away. Instead he had merely flinched and she had stopped, watching him with confusion darkening her eyes. "You overdid it didn't you?" there had been a hint of scolding in her tone, one of her favorites. Winry always knew what was best; at least, she thought that she did.
He had rubbed a hand along the back of his neck hoping that if he just agreed she would let it go and let him go to bed. "Yeah."
"Poor thing!" she had grabbed his hand then, twining their fingers in a casual way that made his heart ache, and he had allowed himself to be led to the kitchen. Once there she had released him, pulling out a chair and pressing him into it. "I'll make you something hot to drink and then you can go have a nap." She had smiled at him and bounced away. "Do you want food too?" her head was stuck in a cabinet, only her torso and legs showing.
"Um… no." he was tired and confused, and he was sick of walking on eggshells. As he watched her bustle through the kitchen a warmth settled in him. He felt a sudden longing to see this everyday for the rest of his life, a sudden pride at the thought that it was he who had brought the bounce back to her steps and the sparkle back to her eyes. He tried to suppress it, to remind himself that she wasn't his and he had no right, but she was happy and it felt good to see her so happy. How could he feel guilty about wanting her to be happy?
He was drawn from his thoughts by a shrill whistle and he realized that she was making hot tea. Gratefully he accepted the steaming mug she slid before him. When she sank into the chair beside him he didn't bother moving. They were friends, right? He could sit beside his friend and drink his tea. Then he would go upstairs and go to bed. That would be it.
She was talking to him, but he wasn't really paying attention instead letting the soothing sound of her cheerful voice drown out his dark and guilty thoughts. The warm liquid sliding down his throat soothed him as well and he felt himself becoming even more drowsy.
Things were getting hazy, confused. She was so close and she smelled so good. Her laughter was like water trickling over rocks or chimes in the wind and she was leaning toward him so close he could feel the warmth radiating from her. And she looked genuinely happy. The warmth of the tea coupled with his exhaustion made his head feel pleasantly light and he found that he couldn't concentrate on what she was saying through the warm haze. Perhaps that was why it had been so easy, so natural, to just give in to the temptation to touch her. It was something he lived with every day, this desire to feel her skin beneath his fingertips and at that moment he couldn't remember why it was wrong. So when a strand of blonde hair had fallen over her face he had tucked it behind her ear without thought. And when his palm lingered on her cheek he reveled in the softness and didn't even think to pull back, fascinated by the feel of her.
She hadn't objected. She hadn't said his name either. Perhaps she had been afraid that he would pull away as he had before. But at that moment pulling away had been the farthest thing from his mind. In that moment he had known nothing but contentment and the fact that she seemed content as well.
After only a few quiet moments he had let his hand drop back to the table. As pleasant as it had felt to touch her he was too tired to remain. In a single draught he had drained his mug. He had risen then, brushing his fingers against her smooth skin once more before mumbling a good night and stumbling up the stairs. He had not seen her smile as she watched him go.
The time after that it had been deliberate. As if he could no longer fight the feelings within himself and had resigned himself to his downfall. It had been late, but for some reason he had been unable to sleep. Wandering down the stairs and out into the gentle night breeze he had been surprised to discover that he had not been the only one sleep had eluded that night. Down under the large tree, sitting on a swing of rope and wood, had been Winry.
He should have gone back, she had not seen him yet, he could have just turned around and returned to him room. He should have, for both their sakes. But something inside of him called out for her and so he had continued to approach her with slow, even steps. Her back had been to him and she had not heard his approach and in that moment he had been completely taken aback by her beauty. Under the moonlight her hair was like liquid starlight and her pale skin glowed. It had almost hurt to look at her. He had stood a few moments drinking in her presence and fighting within himself. The urge to touch her was overwhelming, drowning out his reason and overthrowing his self-restraint, but not his control, he was completely in control of every movement, acutely aware of every sensation.
Coming behind her he had placed his hands gently on her nearly bare shoulders and lowered his face until his nose brushed the skin where her neck and shoulder met. Inhaling he had found it difficult not to bury his face there and just breathe.
"Russell?" she had not been startled, merely surprised and when he made to withdraw she brought a hand up to his hair, securing him against her. She sighed softly, "Why do you always try to run away?" she had questioned softly, and breathing had become nearly impossible.
"Winry." He whispered desperately, sliding his hands down her sides until he could wrap them around her slim waist. She had tightened her hold on him, fingers becoming inextricably entangled in his pale locks.
"Don't run away." The whispered plea had torn at him, tugging at the barriers he had built in his mind and in his heart.
"Never." He had responded, and he had meant it. He never wanted to run again, never wanted to release her from his embrace. He ignored the part of him that screamed that he should go now, while they were both unscathed, shut away the voice that insisted that they couldn't do this, that she didn't really want this, that it was betrayal, it was wrong.
If it was so very wrong, why did it feel so very right?
He had held her long into the night, unmoving and completely enraptured. After that it had seemed ridiculous to deny himself the simple pleasure of physical contact. And soon enough it had become almost frequent. Little touches, brief moments of contact, and then longer ones, hugs that were no longer merely comforting, and soft brushes of lips against lips or delicate skin. He couldn't deny himself; he couldn't deny her; even when it hurt to hold her he could never deny her.
There was still that slight pang, the undercurrent of guilt knowing that she didn't belong to him, that if things had been different it would have been another man she turned to for comfort and companionship, the voice that mocked him and said he was doing it again, trying to be someone else. But it was quieter now, nearly drowned out by the sound of his own breathing and his quickening heartbeat.
He loved her. Heaven help him he loved her. He was so lost.
He hadn't even known who the Full Metal Alchemist was when he'd first impersonated him. He'd only known that he was young, and that he was looking for the stone. He was both, and the word of a State Alchemist had power. It was a convenient identity, almost tailor made for him, and it had taken him much farther than he ever would have gotten on his own. And then they had met and, to be honest, he'd been surprised by the boy he had met. Only a year older than himself and like him he'd been through so much. They had both grown up too quickly, but that was the way of the world. He'd come to respect Ed quite a bit, though that didn't stop him from ribbing him whenever he had the chance – especially about his height. Sometimes Ed was incredibly immature
The second time he had impersonated Ed it had been on a whim. He'd wanted books and he'd had no money. How could he have known that the borrowed identity which had once given him so much clout was going to put him behind bars? Fortunately that mistake had given him a chance to help Ed out and to help stop the madness threatening to envelop their world. And then Ed had been gone, and there had been no point in pretending he wasn't, no reason to assume his name. No one would have believed him anyway, and he didn't have the heart to try. It reminded him too much of the friend he had lost.
But now, now he was pretending again, willfully and foolishly. Or maybe she was pretending and he was just letting her. Except that he was pretending too. Pretending that it was him she loved and not a shadow from her past.
What was he doing here? His purpose for coming here had long been fulfilled. Why was he still in Resembool?
It had been more than a month since his arrival, and Fletcher had not come. His younger brother had finished his research only to find another subject which caught his interest. He was far from Resembool now. Russell longed for the familiar and comforting presence of his brother. Fletcher had always been a rudder in his life, a stabilizer and a guide. Young though he was Fletcher sometimes possessed a wisdom that far surpassed his elder brother. Maybe Fletcher would have been able to tell him what to do.
Still, he couldn't bring himself to write of his dilemma. Perhaps he was afraid that Fletcher would tell him that he was wrong and then the illusion would be shattered, the charade would be over, and he would have to return to his life and leave the woman he had grown to love behind. It was the right thing to do, he told himself. It was best for both of them. They could only be hurt by living this fantasy. But somehow he could not bring himself to let her go. From the moment he had seen her from the train platform he had been captivated. There was no escape from the longing of his own heart.
Nor could he ignore the longing in her eyes. In quiet moments when the guilt welled up so quickly and deeply that it almost choked him he could still hear her voice pleading with him, "don't run away." And in the end those words always held him.
He was tired of pretending. It hurt. He lived with the fear that she would wake up one day and realize that it was not he she loved, but rather the man he reminded her of. So he didn't want to stay.
But he could do it. For her.
For her he would do anything.
And when she found him beneath the old oak tree and slipped her arms around him from behind he did not fight the desire to turn and give in to her embrace. He did not fight the need to press his lips to hers and revel in the sweetness of her taste. He gave in without hesitation, drawing her closer and losing himself in her softness. Immersed in the wonder that was Winry Rockbell he wondered how he had ever tried to deny himself this and he knew that he could never leave her. Old loves and broken dreams aside this was the only place left for either of them. Only in each other's arms could they find peace and contentment.
Perhaps they had only been pretending all along. But in that moment it was enough.
Author's note: Please don't kill me EdxWinry fans. You know I adore that pairing, but this idea just came to me from nowhere and begged to be written. It was depriving me of sleep, I had to give in! I toyed with the idea of having Ed return at the end and have Russell step down, but I just couldn't bring myself to hurt him like that. I love Russel Tringham so much. If I ever feel the need to write a longer FMA piece I might bring that back though. I can see a scene where Winry realizes what she's doing to him and runs after him only to have him smile sadly and tell her that he understands… yeah, so tragically sweet. And then the EdWin fans wouldn't have to kill me, the Russell lovers would do it instead….
Try to overlook the pairing (if you hate it) and just tell me what you thought of the style. I'm in a very melancholy writing stage I think. Bittersweet romances and the like…