The Holly and the Ivy: Firelight
Edward Elric couldn't help but smile as the train rumbled down the tracks, the city of Central receding into the distance. Even though he still thought the idea of celebrating some obscure foreign holiday strange, he had to admit that it felt good to find items he thought the people he cared about would like. The gifts were now sitting, neatly wrapped in their store packaging, in the valise at his feet; it had been easy to find something for Al, Granny Pinako, Rose, and even Rose's son Cain, but there was still a crucial gift missing.
Despite all his searching, Edward still hadn't found anything he thought actually fit Winry. He hoped some judicious snooping at the Rockbell house during his stay would give him ideas. If not, he still had the earrings he'd purchased to give her. Ed knew that the mechanic liked earrings; he'd given her pairs before, but it just seemed that there had to be a better gift he could give her, if he could only find it.
Forcing his mind away from the dilemma, which he had been mulling over for days, Edward noticed a young girl several rows ahead staring at him. He gave her a smile and she jumped, as if terrified she'd been caught staring. Left along again, Ed frowned and tugged at the dark blue sleeves of his uniform; he was certain it was the uniform that had both caught the child's interest and sent her scurrying.
He had planned to leave his office early, giving himself enough time to return to the barracks and change before he needed to catch the train, but a call about a potential case of alchemic rebound had come in and he had been forced to make the trip across Central. Fortunately, the case had not been serious, but Ed had almost missed the last train for Risembool and he was still stuck wearing his uniform. Still, he could probably slip home and change before heading over to the Rockbell house. Comforted by the thought and calmed by the rhythmic rumble of the train as it carried him away from Central, Edward Elric closed his eyes and let his mind wander.
"Sir?" The quiet question brought Ed out of his light doze, and he opened his eyes to find the conductor standing over him, an awkward expression on his face. When he realized Ed was awake, his expression morphed into one of embarrassment. "Sorry for waking you, sir," he apologized, "but I have to ask to see your ticket."
"Of course," Ed answered, digging in his pocket for the slip of paper. As he drew it out and handed it to the conductor, his pocket watch fell out as well and glinted in the afternoon light.
"You're a State Alchemist?" the conductor asked, his eyes caught by the flash of silver even as Edward tucked the watch back into his pocket. Ed nodded, and the conductor continued as he glanced over the ticket, "Can't imagine what business you would have in Risembool. It's a little village in the middle of nowhere, although I hear a decent automail mechanic lives there. Just last month, saw a man with half his arm completely ruined going all the way to Risembool to get a replacement. Must be some mechanic."
Ed couldn't help but smile as he flexed his right hand. "That she is," he said with a smile as he took back the ticket. "When will we be arriving?"
"In about an hour, sir," came the reply as the conductor continued on to the next passenger. The faint smile still lingering on his face, Edward stared out the window as the green farmland flew by.
Edward stepped off the train platform and scrutinized the cold grey skies. Somewhere between Central and Risembool, the weather had changed, and the sky was no longer the clear blue it had been in Central, but a dull silver grey so thick that it obscured the sun, bathing the entire landscape in a strange diffuse light. He grinned as he saw a figure running towards the train station, red overcoat flapping in the wind. "What's the hurry, Al?" Edward asked with a grin as his younger brother came to a panting stop in front of him.
"You're late," Alphonse Elric finally said, his breath streaming in wispy white clouds as he caught his breath. "We were supposed to be at Winry's half an hour ago. She told me to come get you straight from the train station." Without another word, the younger Elric grabbed his brother by the wrist and began pulling him down the road.
"What are you talking about, Al?" Ed asked as he hurried to catch up to the brisk pace Al set. "I need to go home and change out of this damned uniform."
"Didn't Winry tell you?" When Alphonse was satisfied that Ed was not going to lag behind, he let go of his older brother's wrist and turned to face him. At the confused look on Edward's face, Al continued, "Guess not. But we're staying at Winry's house for the next few days to celebrate Christmas. Winry and Rose insisted. I brought spare clothes for both of us to Winry's house before coming to get you."
Ed sighed in resignation before he followed his brother in silence. It wasn't until they came over a rise and saw the Rockbell house that he spoke again. "Al, did you get everyone presents?"
Alphonse nodded, "Of course. I talked to Mr. Armstrong and got Rose a book of sketches of Lior, and Granny a new rocking chair since her old one broke. I even made Cain a set of toy soldiers." A strong gust of wind whistled past and he shivered, "It's really cold today."
"What did you get Winry?" Al could not help noticing the nervous way his brother's eyes flickered towards the bright yellow house as they neared it, and he figured that Edward's last question was the crux of his problem.
"A set of new tools she's been wanting," Al answered, "She's been getting so much business lately that she hasn't had time to go get new ones." Al paused and glanced over at his brother. "Brother, is it your doing that she's been getting so much business?"
Ed jerked his head up in surprise. "No, what are you talking about?"
"It's getting harder for Granny to work all day so sometimes she asks me to help out when Winry has a new customer," Al explained, "A lot of the people coming in mention that they come through Central, and I was just wondering if you had been sending people who need automail to Winry."
"It's not me," Ed repeated, his voice distracted. Al could see his brother's thoughts were elsewhere and fell silent. "She owns practically every tool ever made," the younger Elric could hear his brother mutter under his breath. "I don't want to give her something she probably already has."
Edward was still muttering to himself as they came upon the house and Den raced up to greet them. The dog's enthusiastic barking shook the older Elric out of his thoughts and Ed reached over to scratch Den behind the ears as Al called out "Granny! Rose! Winry! We're back!"
"You're looking official today, Edward," Rose Thomas greeted them with a smile as the young boy in her arms waved and burbled from within his nest of thick blankets. "You must have run all the way down to the train station to bring your brother back so fast, Al."
Al opened his mouth to answer, but before a word could leave his mouth, the sharp ring of metal on metal cut through the air. "Winry! Will you stop throwing this stupid thing at me every time I come back?!" Ed roared, waving the battered wrench in his right hand over his head as he glared at the blonde grinning at him from the balcony.
"You caught it," Winry answered, the surprise evident in her voice. "Last time you just jumped out of the way." Without another word, she disappeared back inside, no doubt to make her way down to the main floor once she'd put away whatever she was working on.
"Last time I had my hands full," Ed grumbled to himself, dropping his valise to cradle his right arm with his left. The impact of the wrench against his automail had set the metal singing, and the vibrations could be felt all the way up into his shoulder, leaving a strange tingling sensation throughout his right side.
"Afternoon, Granny," Ed greeted the tiny, wizened woman who came out the door. "How's business?"
Pinako Rockbell peered at them over her glasses and nodded. "We get by," she answered simply, "You're looking more and more like a military man, Edward. Not sure I approve of this."
Ed gritted his teeth and tried to contain the outburst that was threatening to spill out of his mouth. "I'm going to change out of this stupid uniform," he ground out, glaring at his younger brother, as if all the attention being paid to him and his uniform was somehow Al's fault.
"We're staying in our old room," Al informed his brother needlessly as he watched Ed stalk inside, wrench in one hand and suitcase in the other.
The interior of the familiar Rockbell house was strewn with greenery, and a faint clean, sharp scent permeated the house, reminding Edward of the ravine where he spent countless hours as a child playing with Alphonse and Winry. "Winry?" he asked, wondering where the mechanic had gotten to, "Why does it smell like outside in here?"
"We decorated," Rose answered as she, the older Rockbell, and Al entered the house and closed the door behind them. "We used to cover Lior in ribbons and cloth to decorate for Christmas, but here you have trees, so I went down to the ravine and got branches to put up instead. It makes the whole house smell nice."
With the door closed, the house felt warmer, and Rose's son began to struggle out of his wrappings. "Big brother Al! Play!" the young boy insisted, waving his chubby arms at the younger Elric.
Al grinned and took the boy from Rose's arms. "Hey, Cain," he greeted, throwing the boy into the air. Ed's attention wandered away from the scene as a warm, spicy-sweet scent wafted from the kitchen, overwhelming the smell of pine.
"She's in the kitchen," Pinako informed him as she made her way to a chair in the main room and settled into it.
Leaving his valise and the wrench in the main room, Edward wandered into the kitchen, following his nose as much as the older Rockbell's instructions, to find Winry pulling a tray out of her oven. "What's all this?" he asked curiously as he peered into the oven. "It smells good." It was indeed the source of the spicy-sweet smell, though the objects in the tray resembled nothing edible so much as vaguely human shaped slabs of burned wood.
"Can you grab that one for me?" Winry requested as she laid her own tray down on the table. Ed complied, grabbing a towel from the nearby stack to protect his hand as he brought over the second tray. "They're gingerbread cookies," Winry explained.
"Why are they shaped like people?" Ed asked, probing the surface of one with a finger. When he found that those on Winry's tray were only warm to the touch and not blisteringly hot, he pulled a cookie from the tray and held it up to his face. "They smell good, but they don't look edible." Without another word, he bit into the cookie man's head; a look of astonishment came over his face and he crammed the rest of the cookie into his mouth. "They're delicious!"
Winry slapped at his reaching hand as she untied the white apron from around her waist. "Don't be such a pig, Edward," she admonished through a pleased smile. "We're going to decorate them after they've cooled down. Then you can eat as many as you want."
Once she'd put the apron back on its hook, she allowed herself to scrutinize the young man in front of her thoroughly. The cold outside had left his face faintly red, and his long blond ponytail was windblown. He was wearing the dark blue uniform she had found so surprising on her visit, but now she had to admit that the tailored clothing suited him and kept him from looking swallowed alive by the dark brown coat he favored. "You look nice," she said simply as she grabbed another cookie off the tray and headed out into the living room.
Edward felt the too-familiar warmth of a blush rise in his face, and he found himself distracted to the point of silence as he watched his childhood friend leave the room. He liked watching her walk, or do anything, to be honest; there was a certain grace to her movements that even a violently thrown wrench couldn't hide. He'd admitted to himself half a year ago that he found Winry attractive, more than attractive, even, but he had said nothing to her, unwilling to risk breaking the friendship between them. Suddenly finding himself alone in the kitchen, he hurried back to the main room, where he found Cain seated on Winry's lap, gnawing away on a gingerbread cookie. Al stood in front of the fireplace, coaxing a match among the kindling.
"Winry, he's going to get that all over your shirt," Rose protested, joining the blonde on the floor.
Winry looked down at the white top she wore and shrugged. "It's alright. It's already got flour and sugar all over it. A little more won't hurt." Noticing that Edward had finally left the kitchen, she looked up and smiled at the young man staring at the scene in front of him. "You want to take your stuff upstairs, Ed?" she asked, nodding at the valise on the ground. The direct question seemed to shake Edward out of his thoughts, and he moved to pick up his luggage. "And could you put my wrench back in my room, please?"
"What, so you can throw it at me again?" Edward demanded. "I don't think so." At the realization that she might have lost the wrench for good, Winry glared at him, but Ed merely grinned, disappearing up the stairs with valise and wrench in hand.
It only took seconds for Edward to tuck his valise at the foot of his bed, and another minute to locate the neatly folded set of his clothes Al had brought from their house. He stared at the crisp white linen shirt, Winry's wrench still in his hands, then sighed and left the room, the urge to get out of his previously unbearable uniform gone.
Winry's room was on the far end of the house, its floor littered with scraps of wire and discarded design sketches. Even though the main workshop was downstairs, Edward knew Winry often took smaller pieces up to her room to work on before she slept. Knowing he'd regret it later, Ed left the wrench on the worn wooden table and peered curiously around the large room. A half empty tool box gaped from under her bed, its contents scattered throughout the room. Medical textbooks shared shelf space with books about metallurgy and machine design, though the shelf directly at eye level contained no books, only an automail leg. At first glance, Ed assumed it was Winry's current work in progress, but something about the curve of the calf seemed familiar and he took it down for a closer look. Once he had the piece in his hand, the memory clicked in Edward's mind; the reason the limb looked so familiar was because it had been his, the first one he had been fitted with.
Looking at it now, held in his hands, Ed couldn't help but marvel at how small the limb seemed. Curious, he brought the leg up to his current one, holding it level with the junction of his flesh with the automail, and grinned when the old limb hung several inches off the ground. "You have grown, you know," Winry's amused voice pointed out from the doorway. "I mean, you're as tall as I am now."
Edward felt himself blush as he imagined the ludicrous image he made, holding the child sized leg up to himself. "Why do you still have it?" he asked, turning around to put the limb back where he'd found it. "I thought you would have scrapped it by now or salvaged it for parts."
Winry shrugged, arms crossed in front her as she entered the room. She stopped in front of the bookshelf and brushed a finger over the metal limb before speaking. "I always meant to, but never could bring myself to dismantle it," she answered. "It has sentimental value, I guess. Even though Granny helped a lot with the design and assembly, it was my first piece of automail."
They stood shoulder to shoulder in silence for a minute before Edward spoke again, reaching for the metal leg, "Mind if I borrow it for a while?"
"Just don't break it," Winry warned, fixing him with a stern glare.
"I won't," he promised, smiling at her. Only then did he notice the dark damp spot on the front of Winry's shirt. "Cain didn't like the cookie?" he asked innocently as he danced out of her reach.
The blonde waved a threatening fist at him as he neared the door. "Get out so I can change," she demanded even as he left the room, shutting the door behind him.
The sun was beginning to set behind the grey curtain of clouds and even the combination of the Rockbells' solidly built house and the bright blaze crackling in the fireplace couldn't keep the increasing chill at bay when Winry deemed the gingerbread cookies cool enough to decorate. Pinako waved off Rose's insistence she join in and took Cain by the hand, leading the boy to a seat in front of the fireplace. "You young ones celebrate your holiday," the tiny woman said. "Days like this, I just want to sit in front of a fire."
"Are you sure—?" Rose began to ask. At the look Pinako leveled her, though, Rose thought better of her words and bobbed her head in deference to the older woman. "Thank you," she said, heading into the kitchen.
"So how do we do this?" Alphonse asked, eyeing the neat rows of vaguely people shaped cookies on the counter.
"We use this icing," Rose explained, uncovering a tray she had left on the counter covered by a damp towel, "to decorate the cookies." She took a cookie in one hand and dipped a spoon in a small bowl of bright yellow icing. With a deft stroke of the icing covered spoon, she had given the cookie a shock of bright yellow hair remarkably similar to Ed's.
The resemblance was not lost on Al as he grinned and reached for a bowl of dark red icing. "I can mix the colours in this little bowl, right?" he asked. At Rose's nod, he continued, and soon had a small gingerbread person sporting a bright pink forelock.
"I'm going to go see what's keeping Ed," Winry said with a grin. "I hope you two try not to make all the cookies look like people you know. I don't know how I could eat something that looks like me."
When she reached the second floor, Winry began to shiver; the cold had leaked its way into the second floor of the house, where there was no bright blaze to ward it away. "Ed?" she called down the hall as she first headed to her room to pull a jacket on over her cream-coloured top and dark pants. The door to the Elric brothers' room was closed, and she suspected Edward was within, probably with his nose buried in some alchemy book. "Ed? We're decorating cookies," she called through the door as she raised a hand to knock. "If you don't want to help, at least come downstairs where it's warm."
From within, Winry could hear the clinking sound of metal being shoved away before footsteps neared the door. Ed appeared, still clad in his uniform, and grinned at her. "This means I can eat these cookies too, right?"
She couldn't help but laugh even as she rolled her eyes. "Yes, you bottomless pit," she answered. "Come on."
Cookie decorating took up much of the evening, and they had eaten so many in the processes that none of them felt inclined to have an actual meal. "It's alright, we'll have a real dinner tomorrow," Rose said as she cleaned up the remains of the sandwiches she had prepared for Cain and Pinako, who had not gorged themselves.
"I want to help with that," Al piped up, "since you and Winry have been working so hard getting everything together."
"It's more work than I thought," Winry admitted, then nodded at the plate of brightly coloured cookies, "but just looking at the results and how much fun we had makes it all worthwhile."
"I don't really look like this," Edward complained as he held up a bright, yellow-haired gingerbread man dressed in brown and white, an angry expression on its face. Winry, Rose, and Al exchanged three-way smiles at the complaint; they all agreed it was the spitting image of Ed when he got angry, but telling him so would only prove the point and send them into fits of hysterics. He squinted at the offending pastry and declared, "I'm going to eat him."
"I don't know how you can still eat them," Winry muttered, her voice a mixture of disgust and amazement, "You really are a bottomless pit."
After further scrutiny of the offending cookie, Edward placed it back on the plate. "Maybe tomorrow," he admitted. "Right now I just want to lie down."
"Why don't we hang the stockings and go to bed?" Rose suggested. "And tomorrow morning we can exchange gifts." At Ed and Al's questioning looks, she explained, "It's a tradition in Lior, children hang one of their socks at the foot of their bed before they go to sleep the night before Christmas and when they wake up, the socks are filled with small toys and candy. Although I think we might have better luck hanging ours over the fireplace."
"Who exactly is going to do this filling of socks?" Ed asked suspiciously.
Rose's smile widened as she shook a playful finger at the blond alchemist. "That's a surprise," she admonished. "Come on, I even made special stockings this time because it's the first time you've celebrated."
"Rose, I think I left something in your room when I was playing with Cain," Winry said, "Mind if I go get that?"
Edward couldn't help but notice the look that accompanied Winry's request, a look that Rose obviously also picked up, since a mysterious smile played at the corner of the dark haired woman's face as she answered, "Go ahead, but we'll start without you if you take too long."
When it became obvious that neither Elric brother was terribly inclined to move from his seat, Rose grabbed both of them by the wrist and pulled, almost dragging them towards the main room, where Pinako dozed with a fast asleep Cain in her lap and an equally tired Den at her feet. Following Rose's instructions, Ed and Al each took a large knitted stocking from a basket in the corner and hung it across the mantle. After their own task was completed, Al took a smaller one from the basket for the sleeping boy and hung it up next to his own. "Thanks, Al," Rose whispered with a smile.
"There are stockings for you, Granny, and Winry, right?" Al asked. "We'll put them up. You should take Cain up to bed." Rose smiled in agreement and began to gently coax her sleeping child into her arms. The movement roused Pinako, who shuffled upstairs with Den at her side.
"Brother?" Al asked when they found themselves alone.
Ed straightened the lavender stocking he suspected was Winry's on its nail before turning his attention to his younger brother. "Yeah, Al?"
Perhaps it was the play of flickering shadows across Alphonse's face, or the sudden nervous expression on his face, but to Edward, his brother suddenly looked much younger. "Do you ever regret what I did?" Al asked in a soft, hesitant voice. "That I made you stay here?"
The question caught Edward completely off-guard, and he blinked rapidly as he digested it. He looked around the warm Rockbell house, with the greenery tucked into corners and familiar photographs on the wall, and smiled. "Not at all," he answered firmly, "I was angry at first, but I don't think I was ever angry at you. I was angry at myself for being so easily read, for being so willing to disregard the feelings of the people around me."
The sound of footsteps descending the stairs was accompanied by Winry's voice. "You two should go to bed. I can't stuff stockings if you're both still awake."
"But what about our presents for you, Winry?" Al protested, "It's not fair if you don't get anything in your stocking."
Winry smiled as she came approached the fireplace, a covered basket in her hand. "You can give them to me when we exchange gifts in the morning," she answered, taking the two Elric brothers by the elbow and steering them none-too-gently towards the stairs. "Now go upstairs."
Al's expression showed he was less than satisfied with the arrangement, but a single glance at Winry's face convinced him he would not win out against her. "Good night, then, Winry," he said as he began the climb up to the second floor.
"Good night," Edward echoed as he followed his brother's lead.
When Edward reached the second floor, he didn't expect Alphonse to be waiting for him. He gave his younger brother a questioning look, and Al said simply, "You shouldn't disregard Winry's feelings, Brother. She waited a long time for you to come back, but even she can't wait for you forever." Without another word, Al disappeared into their room.
For the second time in mere minutes, Edward was struck speechless by his brother's words. Lost in thought, he mechanically thrust his hands into his pockets and brushed against the two small boxes he'd been carrying around all night. Pulling them out of his pocket, Ed's expression turned contemplative, and he hurried back down the stairs.
By the time Edward made it back downstairs, Cain's small stocking was already bulging and Winry was in the process of stuffing Alphonse's stocking with a small wooden ball that jingled. "Winry," Ed said, his attention drawn to the similar objects in her hand, "Those are cat toys."
The blonde had whirled around at the sound of his voice, and she managed to look both defensive and guilty at his words as she finished placing the toys in Al's stocking. "So?" she demanded.
"You got him a cat?" Edward asked, incredulous, as he neared the fireplace to peer into his brother's stocking. "Where is the fur ball? It's not in your room; I would have noticed a cat there earlier."
"Well, it's there now, and you're not getting rid of it," the blonde insisted. "And don't tell Al what he's getting for Christmas. I want it to be a surprise."
Edward couldn't help but smile at her insistence. "I won't," he promised, "but if that cat tears apart anything of mine when Al brings it home, I'm blaming you."
She waved away his concern with a smile before stepping back from the fireplace. "I can't stuff your stocking while you're watching, Ed," she complained. "It wouldn't be a surprise."
Staring down at the boxes in his hand, Ed suddenly looked nervous. "I wanted to leave something in your stocking," he admitted, "and I wanted to give you your gift now. It's a little hard to explain."
Having known Edward Elric for as long as she had, Winry knew at once that there was something more that the young man before her wasn't saying. "Alright," she said, her curiosity piqued.
Ed could feel his cheeks flush as he slipped the smaller box that contained the earrings into her stocking, though he hoped it was just because of the heat of the fire. "What do you say when you give someone their Christmas present?" he asked as he stepped away from the fireplace. "Happy Christmas?"
"I think it's traditionally 'Merry Christmas,'" Winry answered.
"Well, Merry Christmas, Winry," Edward said, pressing the remaining box into her hand. Winry examined it curiously in the flickering firelight for so long that he couldn't help but add with a nervous laugh, "Just open it already, will you?"
The blonde mechanic glared at him before following his instructions. Within the small box, she found a thin, dull silver chain attached to a twisted glass vial no thicker than her little finger. Though she rarely wore more jewelry than her earrings, Winry had to admit there was beauty in the piece's simplicity. "It's a necklace," she marveled, "and there's something in that vial. What is it?"
Edward's automail hand closed over hers as his other hand lifted the thin necklace out of its box and placed it in her hand. "I made it," Ed explained softly, "completely out of your first piece of automail. Out of my first piece of automail. The chain is metal from the plating, and it's one of the screws inside that vial." He paused in his explanation and smiled sheepishly, "It's not a very good gift, is it?"
Winry blinked back the tears she could feel welling up and swallowed past the lump in her throat as she shook her head. "It's a wonderful gift!" she insisted, her voice wavering despite her best efforts. "I can't believe you did this." She offered him the necklace with a smile and added, "Help me put it on?"
Finding his throat suddenly dry, Ed nodded in silence and took the necklace, reaching behind Winry's neck to fasten the clasp as she held her long hair away. As he secured the thin metal chain, Edward couldn't help being aware of how soft her skin felt beneath his fingertips or of how brilliantly blue her eyes were as they sparkled in the light of the fire. "Winry, there's one other thing I want to give you," he continued, his voice a bare whisper, "But I think if I do, you would hit me."
Winry couldn't help the somersault her stomach did as she stared into Edward's dark gold eyes. He was so close that she could feel the heat radiating off his skin, could see the nervous way he chewed his lip as he spoke. "What is it?" she managed to ask, her throat suddenly dry as he bent closer to catch her words. She couldn't help but notice just how close he was, his lips less than a finger's width from her own.
Before he could regret the decision or lose his nerve, Edward closed the tiny distance between himself and Winry, pressing his lips to hers as his arms tightened around her of their own accord, unwilling to let her go. Within his arms, Ed felt Winry stiffen in shock, and he was about to pull away when he felt her lips respond. It took him another split second to realize she was kissing him back, that he had not been concussed, that the woman in his arms, his oldest friend, was clinging to him as surely and as tightly as he was clinging to her. Warmth that had nothing to do with the blazing fire in front of them and everything to do with the knowledge that Winry wanted this as much as he did flooded through Edward, bringing with it an undeniable certainty that this was right, that there was no other place he wanted to be at that moment than within the warm Rockbells' house with Winry Rockbell in his arms, her lips pressed to his, that this was exactly where he belonged.