Title: Sinking In
Summary: Six things Edward Elric (re)learns when he moves back to Risembool.
A/N: Originally written for the fireandice2008 challenge, and inexplicably won first place – major, major thanks to everyone who put in a vote towards my little fic. Spoilers up to Chapter 84, though I don't think there's anything world ending in there.
Risembool is hot. That's a fact that, throughout all of his travels, has always been lurking firmly in the underbelly of his brain along with a thousand or so other sensory memories (the smell of blood and raw meat at Sensei's store, the glare of the sun against Brigg's white snow) that have lost their bite over time.
At first he's grateful for the heat – anything that helps a frail, newly restored Al conserve body heat is a good thing in his book – but after a couple weeks of just baking Ed finds himself wondering how he could have ever forgotten something so oppressively obvious.
Every morning he wakes up in damp sheets, limp hair that he can't be bothered to braid clinging to the back of his neck, and forgoes everything but clean shorts as he pads down the steps and peers into the kitchen. He scowls at Granny and her hot coffee, scowls at Al and his cold milk, and absently reaches for fresh orange juice before glancing out the window over the kitchen sink.
Winry's usually out there exercising Den, forcing the old girl to retrieve some sticks and run around a little bit – the best remedy for cranky joints is exercise, Granny always insists – and it's a welcome scene right out of the oldest parts of his memories, going back to when Den still had four flesh legs and most of their mornings started out by chasing either Den's wagging tail or Winry's ruffling hair.
He marvels at how, for however much he's grown and learned and changed, there're some things that are still the same –
And when Winry notices him watching her, she smiles at him and waves before lunging at a bounding Den. Ed impersonates her by returning a half-smirk and a little finger wave before turning his attention to dry cereal, because even hot toast seems distasteful right now…
And maybe it's not really the same at all, is it?
Granny hasn't lost any of the nimbleness in her bones. More than once in his childhood he's cringed as he's seen that worn, wrinkled hand come flying towards him, and yeah, he's always deserved it so it doesn't put him off doing what he knows he shouldn't as much as it creates the fear of Granny spotting him mid-act.
Still, food is delicious and years of being sensitive towards Al while living on the road with few bright spots (Sensei's steaks, Gracia's cakes) have done a number on his taste buds. Foods that he's grown up with have become almost foreign on his tongue, and sometimes it seems like Winry and Granny are not just spoiling a ravenous Alphonse as much as they're reeducating Edward in the ways of country cooking.
Granny has her back to him when Ed wanders into the kitchen, his stomach already growling in anticipation of the smothered pork chops he can smell on the stove. The scent of the gravy and the frying meat has overpowered the scent of desert, which had captured Ed's attention the moment he'd stepped over the threshold.
The pie. It has to be one of Winry's, Winry's the only one who rolls cinnamon in with her crust, and it's just sitting there on the windowsill cooling, just waiting for anyone to pick it up and wander away with it, or even just pick at that little piece of crust that's cracking on one edge, just that one little piece will satiate him until desert –
And that's when Granny's hand flies into his peripheral vision, batting his hand away like he's a five year old reaching for cookies again. He slinks away like a wounded dog, thinking it's ridiculous that he might still fear the hand of an old hag and refusing to be grateful for the fact that it's Granny who's caught him messing with the pie and not Winry herself, which inspires a whole different type of fear inside of him…
And maybe it's the fact that he's afraid of both her catching him and not catching him?
There are actually other rooms in the Rockbell house other than the workshop and the kitchen. This should not be nearly as surprising as Ed finds it, considering how much time he's spent in the house over the years, but that still doesn't change the fact that he feels as though he's discovering the house for the first time since he was a kid.
During the day it's too hot to go outside for too long, and while Al can snooze comfortably through the stifling midday heat Ed often finds himself on the prowl, the cat ever searching for the mouse.
The Rockbell house has a similar layout to their own, but there are still little tweaks here and there (This was Mom's linen closet, Dad turned this room into a study) that keep him interested as he invests himself in the house as a home for the first time since Granny and Winry wanted the boys to move in after Trisha's passing.
He's following a trail of pictures hanging in the hall, watching Winry's father morph back into a child before his very eyes, and freezes when he reaches the oak doorframe that marks the entry into Winry's bedroom.
This is a room vaguely more familiar to him; this is where he spent those couple of days scouting the horizon when he'd returned with Greed; when he'd been separated from Al and Winry. He stares into it for a couple of moments, trying to mesh his memory with the sight in front of him – it's not easy, because the room had been neat then, but Winry's left the bed unmade again, not to mention the laundry thrown over the back of her desk chair and the books strewn about her desk – before another memory rises unbidden: that of Winry walking in oh-so-nonchalantly and starting to undress right before his very eyes.
It's a thought that's tortured him regularly and that he's become mostly adept at squelching back into the deeper recesses of his mind, but that doesn't stop the heat rising in his cheeks, and he can't help letting out an embarrassed groan as he buries his hands in his face.
"Ed? What are you doing up here?" He nearly jumps out of his skin at the sound of Winry's voice coming up behind him, and when he turns around to stammer out an excuse her face morphs from pleased to see him to concern for his health. "Are you okay? You look almost feverish."
He flinches away from her touch, rocking back on his heels as though he might scald her. She notices, of course, and freezes, her hand still hanging there awkwardly.
"S'hot up here," Ed finally chokes out, running a hand through sweaty bangs and trying to edge away from her.
"Well," her face still looks concerned, with added shades of confusion, and her hand is still there in the air, its mission unfinished, "go back downstairs then. Heat rises, science geek." Then her formerly concerned touch turns into a flick on the forehead and she brushes past him to get into her bedroom. He feels a shot of guilt at the puzzled look on her face, hates being responsible for the way her eyebrows knit together and how the corners of her mouth turn down. It takes everything inside of him not to call her back to him…
And maybe the last thing he needs is another memory of her to torture himself with?
People never stop talking. Ed loves Risembool, it's his home, but one of the drawbacks of living in such a small place with so few people is that nobody has anything better to do than talk about one another to one another.
It bothered him when he was a kid (And the father hasn't been seen since the fall, It's a shame she orphaned two little boys like that…) but it was something he'd come to accept from the military, which seems to run on nothing but false official statements buoyed by whispered truths and rumors. He'd gotten used to people whispering his name long ago –
And yet that does nothing to prevent his foul mood as he and Winry finish their shopping in the market that afternoon.
"Really Ed," she remarks as they make the lonely trek back up to the house. "I don't know what bee flew in your bonnet but you were downright rude to Mrs. Davis."
"You didn't hear her, did you?" Ed grumbles at her, shifting the bags to his automail arm, being careful not to smash Granny's eggs. "She always gossips about me."
Winry throws him a strange look. "She gossips about everyone. They all do."
"You didn't hear what she was saying," Ed tries to insist.
Winry remains unswayed. "You should just ignore her; it's not a big deal. Everyone in town gossips."
"I know but-"
"I mean," Winry talks doggedly over him. "Even I gossip. Half the time that's all customers have to talk about when they come in."
"It's not that she was talking about me," Ed interrupts hotly. "I'm used to that. It's what she was saying."
Winry eyes him from under the brim of her hat, the only thing to shield from the sun beating down upon them. "What could she have said that was worse than anything you've heard before?" There's a skeptical tone to her voice, and of course there is because Ed's heard every single insulting epithet possible hurled at him, and what could some old biddy from the market say to have upset him so badly?
"She said – what she said –" he stumbles over his words, trying to find the right ones to properly explains the depth of Mrs. Davis' treachery:
"You never see Winry without Edward in tow anymore, do you?" she'd remarked to Mrs. Cook while Winry was examining the produce.
"They're almost inseparable," Mrs. Cook had confirmed, leaning over the counter and in no hurry even though her purchase had long been completed and squared away. "He's still living at the Rockbell house."
"I figured he'd want to go ahead and rebuild his house already."
"When she's right in front of him?"
"You think he'd have snapped her up by now…"
"You think he hasn't?"
Winry's still looking at him expectantly, and suddenly his throat closes and his tongue dries up. Her eyes are the same shade of blue as the cloudless sky above them, but when Ed looks at the sky he's reminded how small, tiny, unimportant he is. Winry's eyes are the opposite; he looks at the endless blue of her eyes and sees what he means to her. He's learned Sensei's lesson well – the world wouldn't have stopped turning if he hadn't come back from his journey, but hers might have.
He has the sudden, clear understanding that if he repeats these women's words angrily to Winry, she'll be upset for an entirely different reason than he is. And he knows that he never, ever wants to be the one who upsets her that way, never again.
"You're right," he concedes, picking up his pace and leaving her five steps behind. "It's not important. You shouldn't listen to them either."
"I don't!" Winry calls, exasperated, and Ed knows if he looks over his shoulder that confused look will be back on her face. Confusing her no longer seems that bad, as long as he doesn't upset her.
And maybe he's most upset that those women acknowledged the truth before he could?
Farms smell awful. Ed simply doesn't remember this smell from when he was a kid and in the end chalks it up as another loss from his journey – and he knows he's not the only one, because he's seen the way Al cringes some afternoons when the stench wafts in through the open windows.
It's not the worst thing he's ever smelled in his life (his own blood mingled with settling dust against the biting cold wind, the stale decay within Gluttony's stomach…) but it's pervasive, and Ed has a hard time shaking it, especially in the early afternoon, when the sun is high and the air carries the stink of manure and animals and roasted, rotting greenery. He spent his entire childhood running through these fields and across Risembool's few roads but now just walking up the drive with Winry is a test of his endurance.
He'll bear it though; time spent with Winry is – well, it's actually fairly common. Now, time alone with Winry that doesn't involve debating automail with Granny breathing down their necks or bickering mindlessly while tending to Alphonse's needs, that's something he's not quite used to, and maybe that accounts for the jangling in his stomach.
"Are you okay?" she asks him, and by the resigned tone in her voice he knows she has to feel like a broken record; the majority of their conversations over the past few weeks have started with her questioning his health. It's to the point that she's giving him the same appraising eye that she always gives Al, and for good reason.
Spending time with Winry is both terrifying and exhilarating; he feels like he's being pulled in all directions at once. He constantly alternates between being stupidly pleased by her company and wanting to push her away so he can go sulk. Sometimes he wants to grab her by the shoulders and tell her every single thought that's backed up in his head, but a lot of the time he's simply tongue-tied, only having one thought on his mind when she's around and therefore having a hard time saying anything else.
He's probably infuriating her with this back and forth – or even worse, hurting her. He just can't believe something as simple as walking with Winry, something so commonplace, that he's taken for granted for years, has turned into both the most anticipated and the most dreaded part of his day.
"Yeah," he answers, quickly rearranging his face into a more genial expression. "I'm just… not used to the small of the farms yet."
Winry's lip curls in understanding. "I know what you mean. I never noticed it until I went to Rush Valley and came home, but I'm used to it now." She ducks her head and looks over her shoulder, giving him a half smile through the strands of hair she's failed to tuck behind her ear. "It fades. Or something will distract you…"
Ed's brain lights up and lurches forward. Say something, but his tongue is tied as usual and he passes up the opportunity she's so kindly gifted him with.
And maybe there are no words for how she distracts him?
There really is nothing as obnoxious as a kid who thinks he knows everything. "Know-it-all" is not a new taunt to Edward – or Al, or even Winry, not with their parents, not with the way they picked up alchemy and automail at the age they did. Though Edward's learned of his true ignorance over the years (Hawkeye's solemn eyes as she recounts her Ishbal experience, Nina Tucker's playful gaze over a pointed snout) it seems like the majority of his childhood in Risembool was spent proving people wrong.
The schoolhouse is truly as small as it always seemed to him. The paint is peeling and glaring in the sun, but the windows are clean and the door is oiled; it's as well used and dreaded as ever by the children of Risembool, even if it's empty at the moment. It's the hottest afternoon of the summer so far; the children of Risembool are wisely staying far, far away, and somehow Edward, the know-it-all, has found himself here with Winry.
How they've ended up here, of all places, when the sky is empty save the burning sun is something Ed can't even fathom. Winry's only an arm's length away and his mind is traveling in that direction as opposed to keeping track of what's going on around him; he probably couldn't answer why they'd left the relative comfort of the house, if asked.
It seems ironic that this is the place that they've come to, in all of Risembool. Edward spent countless days here reading ahead and arguing minute points with his teacher – or, once those endeavors had been exhausted, ignoring the poor woman all together, convinced he knew things she could never properly teach him. Now he's standing here in front of the building next to Winry, and he wishes more than anything he had proper guidance.
This is where he and Alphonse had gotten into their ridiculous argument over whom Winry would marry – an event he doesn't remember, but that he's made Al describe to him. He's almost glad he can't remember it; from Alphonse's words it was an argument borne from Ed's usual blustering self confidence (Well who else was she gonna marry?) and aggravated by the fact that there were other people around (because when could Edward ever resist the chance to not only be right, but prove to everyone that he was right?) This is probably why he doesn't remember it – the thought of not only being proved wrong but of being put neatly in his place by Winry in front of other people was humiliating, and so traumatizing he simply blocked it away. The thought of it now almost nauseates him, although that could be the heat.
At least he knows better than to assume that she will follow his posturing.
It helps that there are no witnesses this time.
She's turned away from him, looking not at the schoolhouse but back down the road, past the pastures and towards their house. He can't see her face; the glare of the unhindered sun against her hair almost makes him want to avert his eyes. That's what he reaches for, and just barely snags the tail end of a loose section. When she turns her head to face him he realizes she's been saying something anyway –
"-And Granny probably hasn't started dinner yet, if you want something in particular…"
She trails off, because judging by the quizzical look on her face she's realized that he's getting closer to her, and why risk an exchange of body heat on an afternoon like this, and Ed hates that confused look on her face so he closes his eyes and tells her what he wants by leaning in and kissing her.
Kissing is one area where he has to claim ignorance; he can't help thinking that next time they won't mash their lips so hard or let their teeth click in that way, and really, he had no idea that so much thinking was involved with kissing.
When she pulls away she still has that confused look on her face, but the blush rising in her cheeks has nothing to do with the heat. He rocks back on his heels, mouths silently for words, his brain screaming for him to do something – thank her? – but she saves him from the indecision by smiling and reaching up to take the hand that's still holding onto her hair.
She squeezes his hand gently, doesn't let go despite the fact that both of their palms are sweaty, and says softly, "Let's go home, Ed."
"Yeah," he mutters and it suddenly occurs to him that maybe he should smile too. "Okay."
And maybe there's no one who can put him in his place like she can?