A/N: Thoughts and comments are very much appreciated. Thanks, y'all.
"Every new beginning comes from some other beginning's end."
-Seneca the Younger
It's so easy to place blame. In fact, that's usually my first reaction for every confrontation I have. First I blame myself. Then I blame one of the other people implicated. Then I might blame someone else who's not there but is indirectly involved. Then probably myself again. And then, by that time, I've gotten into another confrontation, and I don't have time to worry about blaming someone for the confrontation before. I've got new confrontations to think about. Always new confrontations.
I imagine some kind of justice is out there, dealing blows to all those people who earned it, all those people whom I have blamed. Yeah, because I'm the judge. I'm sure it's as comforting to everyone else as it is to me that I've been endowed with this power.
I try not to, but I still believe in equivalent exchange. What you give is what you get. The world is just. It's fair, and I'm the only one who is allowed to moan when I don't get back what I put in.
But, honestly, who am I to determine fairness? Maybe what you put in—the energy or the love or the time—can't be measured by someone like me.
Still, I believed, ultimately, all's fair in everyone's life but mine. People get what's coming to them.
That's why seeing him again, like that… the first person I blamed was myself.
She had met Jean Havoc for the first time when she was eleven or twelve, in a bar, with Edward and a bunch of people she didn't know. He was so charming, even then, to little, barely pubescent her. Had she not been born in love with Edward, she might have attached herself to him in that way that prepubescent girls do to older men.
Nearly ten years and one failed shot at Edward later, Jean Havoc arrived again, the same way he did before: bored and smoking.
Winry had moved to Central a few months before and established herself as an independent contractor. But establishment meant that she had filled out the paperwork and had started paying more taxes with the money she wasn't making yet.
She had resisted selling the house for as long as she could. It had been in the family for a long time, and it had as many ghosts as it did termites. She started getting offers, though, as soon as she put it on the market, and she got all those dollar signs stuck in her mind, and she couldn't wait to put them in her stomach. The whole thing happened so quickly. She didn't even get to say goodbye.
One check for two months' overdue rent and a stocked fridge later, and she still missed the place.
The full stomach made her brave, though, and she got snagged into her first job within the month. The Central Orthopedic Group: the only physical therapy, prosthetic, and automail provider contracted with the military.
The last troops from the Ishbal Reformation were trickling home, making a pretty constant stream of men in blue uniforms in her office. That combined with the summer—a mechanic's busiest time of year—had the waiting room clogged with bodies on the morning she remet Jean Havoc. The men—mostly men, a few women—covered every surface, filled every couch cushion, and parked wheelchairs in every corner.
It felt like a hospital in there. From where she sat just about in the middle of this creaking, coughing, groaning pack of soldiers, she wondered what kind of diseases Ishbal had. Really bad ones, she was sure. Ones she wouldn't have an immunity against.
Winry was acting secretary that morning. The problem with automail mechanics in general is that they require precision. Every millimeter counts when you're rebuilding someone's leg. For that reason, the COG couldn't keep a secretary for more than four months. So, they took shifts. Winry didn't have any clients until three, and she would be trading out with an intern named Cathy at lunch.
Winry checked her watch. Cathy was late.
Jean Havoc stood in the doorway, nearly tall enough to brush the top of the doorframe with his rather unkempt, blonde hair. He had one foot on the carpet and one foot on the porch. He seemed content just to straddle the threshold and smoke lazily.
She had seen some odd behaviors in patients, far odder than this, in fact, but something about Jean struck Winry. He didn't pay any attention to his comrades, almost pointedly. The way he shifted his weight from porch to waiting room and back led her to believe that, first, he wasn't a patient, and second, he did not want to be there. Unless he was very far in his recovery or had a rather clandestine injury, he was the only soldier there who could fidget without wincing.
Winry watched him over the partition between the front desk and the waiting room. He looked exactly how she remembered him. Still impossibly tall—which, when she was a kid, she thought of just about anyone taller than her—and broad. Winry realized that, for most of her life, Edward had typified male-ness in her mind, and that would make just about anyone seem tall and broad.
Jean stood straighter and steadier than anyone else in that waiting room. Perhaps that's what struck Winry most. He looked like a buoy of constant-ness in that blue sea of troubled, unstable men.
Winry saw him finish his cigarette, flick away the butt, and look over at her. Why it suddenly made her feel shy, she couldn't say. After making eye contact with him, she looked down and fiddled with the files sitting on the desk.
When she looked back up, he was approaching the desk, and Winry felt her pulse quicken, like she had a bird trapped in her chest.
"Well, fancy meeting you here," he said in that way that men do, resting one elbow against the counter like men do when they say things like that. He smiled a crooked grin. Winry could smell smoke and aftershave, and she felt a warm wave of remembrance. He smelled like Rush Valley.
"Fancy that," she replied, like she'd seen women in moving pictures do. It sounded contrived in her ears. The effect she was going for was charming. Winry was aware that she was blushing, and she could just bet that Jean was aware of it, too. Not that she was unfamiliar with men and their elbows and the way they liked to lean in and grin. Like he was doing. Apparently, soldiers have a thing for secretaries, because, any time she ran the desk, she would get a succession of blue-suited men leaning over and saying charming things and flashing charming smiles.
Typically, Winry smiled back and asked them what time their appointment was.
On this particular day, though, she blushed like a fourteen-year-old and had a difficult time dredging up a reply that didn't sound contrived.
"When I noticed you from back there, all I could see was your eyes over this desk," he said. "You looked like a pigeon perched there."
There was a sweetness to that. She smiled. "I try not to make a habit of sitting back here. I'd rather be in the shop."
He turned toward the desk and propped both elbows on the counter. "It's been a while, eh, Kiddo?" he said.
In her mind, Winry stood up and twirled herself around. I know she would say. Look how I've filled out since I was twelve! But she didn't say that. "It has, hasn't it?" she said, instead. "Eight years, maybe?" she offered.
He put on a pained face. "You make me feel old."
Winry smiled at him. He didn't look old. He looked, honestly, like the fittest man in the room.
Winry had seen more than her share of predatory faces looking over that desk at her. Men who had met her when she was Edward's smaller, female shadow. Men who would say things like It's been a while, Kiddo and then look her over. Those bozos were easy to deflect. But there was an honest interest in Jean's face, a friendliness that she had forgotten men could have.
She watched him a moment, watched those disarming eyes, so blue she might expect to lean in an hear the ding of buoys, the cry of gulls.
He could have been a photograph from her past, something she had stumbled upon while cleaning out the crawlspace at the old house. And that was comforting somehow. It was easy to forget that there were excerpts from her years with Edward that didn't make her feel like she was drinking alone.
Winry thought about the year prior, an exercise in her emancipation from the last familiar male face. And She thought that maybe it was time to try again.
So when Jean asked her what time she got off for lunch, she told him.
Jean did things like rearrange himself so that, when they were strolling side-by-side down the sidewalk, he was between traffic and her. He did things like hold her elbow when they crossed the street. Winry remembered Jean having a sort of teasing nonchalance to him almost a decade prior—perhaps it was because she had been twelve and he twenty. But that was gone now. He seemed entirely not self-conscious in his actions, in the way he chatted with her.
The longer they walked, the more suspicious of him she got. She felt him brush his palm across her lower back when they maneuvered through a pack of school children. And men just don't do things like that. They calculate and practice, and she started to wonder if Jean had been trained by some magnanimous woman in his past, someone who taught him to hoard his touches with mock-chivalric accuracy.
When they sat down in two wrought iron chairs at a sidewalk table outside a deli about two blocks from her office, Winry was in entire doubt of him. Jean Havoc was trying to play her like a violin with its strings too tight, and he was probably chuckling away to himself at how easy it was to make her sing.
Winry crossed her arms over her chest and watched him. She was prepared to make him dance that stupid man dance that they do when the only thing they really want in the world is for you to touch their boners. She watched him unbutton his uniform coat and drape it over the back of the chair. He loosed the top button of his shirt and rolled up his sleeves.
"So how'd you land a job like the COG?" he asked after they had ordered two coffees.
Winry knew the COG had a reputation around the military. The name COG was synonymous with being out of commission. She had heard a soldier say something like I'll be off the COG for sure this time when he was expecting a lecture from a superior. That reputation aside, it was the best clinic in the city, and Winry knew it. "I just had to drop the name 'Fullmetal' here and there. In the right circles, his automail is as famous as he is."
Was she thought to herself; Edward had been out of the limelight for years.
Jean slumped back in his chair and draped his left arm over the back. "So, they just took you on, like that?"
"I wish," she muttered. "I've got to apprentice for a year under a COG mechanic."
"So, I take it you work like a mechanic, and they pay you like an apprentice," Jean offered.
Winry laughed. "Pretty much. My boss stays out of my way." She caught herself then. She was being charmed.
Jean waved down a waitress, and they ordered their lunches. Someone had once told her that a girl should order salad when eating with a man, and despite Winry's mistrust in him, she was just self-conscious enough to take the advice.
And that was a dumb idea because after she cleaned out her salad, she was still really hungry. Winry didn't mean to eye the other half of Jean's BLT. She didn't even realize she was doing it until Jean realized it.
"I bet you do a lot of heavy lifting at your job. A lot of manual labor sort of stuff?" he asked.
She shrugged. "Nothing extreme, but someone's got to unload the parts from the truck."
"In that case," Jean said, putting his half a sandwich on the edge of her salad bowl, "You're going to need more than rabbit food."
If she could have gotten away with slipping under the table and crawling away without his noticing, she would have. Winry felt her face heating up. She felt like an idiot. "I can't eat your lunch," she said, shaking her head.
"I sit at a desk most of the day, Pidg. You need it more than I do."
Boy, was she ever being charmed. Pidg? Pidg? But the worst part about believing so hard that he couldn't be for real, that he was just wheedling her, was realizing that it felt so nice. And just because she felt in her gut that it was all a facade, did that mean she couldn't enjoy it?
He had a really nice smile, and he was turning it on her. Right on her. And he was calling her Pidg, and she loved it already.
"Thanks, Jean," she yielded, and while one part of her felt like she was conceding territory, another part of her was too hungry to care. It was a really good sandwich, too.
"So what brought you into the COG?" Winry asked around a mouthful.
"What? Taking you out to lunch isn't a good enough reason?" He grinned that lopsided grin.
"Aren't you sweet," she intoned, and Jean snorted into his coffee.
He took a moment to clean himself up with a napkin. "My doctor told me I needed to get back into physical therapy, and I thought I'd drop in to schedule an appointment."
Typically, when someone mentions physical therapy, Winry could tell exactly how much they wanted to disclose. Especially men. After seeing it so many times, she could guess with pretty good accuracy whether he was seeing a doctor because he broke a leg rescuing a baby from a runaway train or because he strained his groin during ballet practice. But not Jean. His face didn't beg her not to ask, not did it hope that she would ask him to tell a war story.
So she gambled. "Can I ask what happened?"
He shrugged and looked away for a moment. Like he was deciding how much he wanted to say. He looked back. "You get shot at a lot in my line of work," he said, putting up some distance between them.
It was that right there that made her cave. There was a sort of vulnerability in his voice when he said it, and Winry was so surprised, so caught off guard that she was stunned into silence. To see that glimpse of something he would prefer to keep hidden felt like hearing a secret. There was a sadness to it, a regret. And Winry felt her expectations of him shift and fracture like the crack that ran down the side of her coffee mug.
But men just don't do things like that. Regret and sadness and vulnerability were never pieces on the board she thought Jean had brought to the table. He made her wonder if perhaps she didn't really know what men do. For that reason, later that day, when Winry ran into him loitering on the sidewalk outside the office, she felt completely unprepared.
He rubbed at the back of his head when she came out the front door. "Hey, Winry," he said.
He was standing out in the sun, and the glare off car windshields was so bright that she took him by the arm and pulled him into the shade under the awning. "Hi, Jean," she said, a little surprised. "Have you been waiting out here long?"
He shrugged. "Uh, you know, just waiting for you to get off work. I came by earlier, but you weren't at the front desk."
"Yeah, I had a client," Winry answered.
"Right," he said. "'Cause you work here."
She smiled at him and nodded. "I do."
This was not the dance she had expected. Winry knew he was trying to ask her out again, and this, more than the nickname or the casual touches or the half a sandwich, charmed the socks off her.
"So, look," he began, spreading his hands. "I hope this isn't weird, but I'd like to see you again."
There was that bird in her chest again, tossing itself against her ribs. "I'd like that."
"Do you have plans Sunday evening?"
Winry felt the pressure of something blooming behind her sternum. She had a sneaking suspicion that it might be girlish glee, but she was feeling too fluttery to judge herself for it. "No," she answered, just barely keeping that bird in her throat.
"Do you have a nice dress? Possibly one that matches this?" He pinched the lapels of his uniform coat. He started to look nervous, like with every question, he was narrowing the yes I'll go out with you margin.
"I could get one."
Jean blew out a sigh of relief. "Great. Because every May, the Armstrongs throw an Officer's Gala, and it's going to be crawling with folks you know. So you could catch up with all them. And this will be the first one I'm not going stag to. Potentially, I mean. If you say yes, that is. Which I think you should. Because you would have a good time." At this point, he gave her a look that said both that he had made his point and that he had kept talking long after the speech he had practiced had ended.
There went her socks. Zing. They took off down the street, blown off by the anxious hope in his eyes.
"I'd love to," she said.
Winry was one of a sea of young women at the gala. They all wore their hair in the same style—a cascade of long curls pinned at the crowns of their heads—and they all wore the same dress—black, floor-length, slinky numbers with sweetheart necklines. Despite this, Winry felt out of place. And there was a sea of them. Some of them traveled from one pack of men to another, some of them clung to potential meal tickets, and Winry felt like an idiot because she really was not looking to marry anyone there.
Jean had picked her up from her apartment in his big, black car. He had told her that he would be there at seven, but Winry was too busy standing in front of her mirror and wondering what the hell she was thinking when she had bought that dress to notice him parked outside until he had been there for five minutes or so.
What had she been thinking? The dress was amazing, she supposed. Maybe if she had been wearing it somewhere else with someone else and were, in fact, someone else, it would have been amazing. What it was on her, she wasn't sure, though, and she had spent the first hour after putting it on turning circles in front of her mirror. When she faced forward, it was fine. Clingy, flattering, not too low cut. But when she turned around. God, what had she been thinking?
The back of the dress scooped low. Very low. Winry craned her neck over her shoulder and looked at her own ass for a really long time. The back of the dress pooled in a curve of folds above her tailbone, and while she knew she had flounced around Rush Valley naked-er than that, something about the combination of black and silk and all that exposed skin just seemed too much. What the hell was she thinking?
When she came out of the building, carefully stuffing her keys into a tiny, impractical clutch, Jean was leaning against his parallel parked car by the sidewalk, his face bent toward his cupped hand as he lit a cigarette. The sun was still high in the sky, but Winry could see the orange glow of his lighter reflecting off his cheekbones.
"Hi, Jean," she said, getting his attention. In her head, she was going to sound casual and comfortable. It came out, however, in this coquettish little voice, more breath than voice, that completely betrayed how exposed she felt.
He looked up, pinching his cigarette out of his mouth. "Hey," he said. "Ready to go?"
"I guess so," Winry replied. "Sorry to keep you waiting."
As she approached, Jean stood up straight and took a moment to look over her dress. He whistled. "Country mouse," he said, "What happened?"
Winry was glad that he didn't spout something about her looking ravishing or whatever because deflecting or accepting that manner of crap is difficult enough, but she couldn't deny that little bit of satisfaction she felt when he opened the car door for her, saw the back of her dress—or lackthereof—and dropped his cigarette out of his mouth. It sizzled when it hit the dead leaves in the gutter, and Jean quickly put it out with his foot. Winry sank into the passenger seat and pretended not to notice.
For as quietly pleasant as that introduction was, Winry felt like one output from the same cookie cutter once they got to the party.
The Armstrong's ballroom was a manifest absurdity. The hardwood floors, set up in a chevron design with different colored panels, were polished to a high gloss, and the crystal chandeliers looked big enough to hold a troop of acrobats. It was a long hall, with the band on a dais at one end and tables and a bar at the other, lined all the way down with heavy-looking, marble columns.
Winry's distinguishing characteristic, it seemed, among the crowd of hangers-on was that she knew more people there than just her date. Jean treated her, though, like she couldn't be left alone, and while it was a little overwhelming at the time, she would later realize that he was being a good escort. When she noticed Lieutenant Ross a few conversational pods over, Winry darted over to her to say hello, and Jean remained close behind. Major Armstrong, Lieutenant Bloche, Captain Hawkeye. Jean remained at her side, and they all caught up together like they all went way, way back. Winry caught herself, after a few conversations with officers from her past, feeling like they did, like Jean could have been a regular installment in her life.
Something about the way she caught his eye while they chatted with other officers, these casual little side glances, barely enough for the person they were meeting to notice. Winry felt the excitement of new company, but it was tempered with a sort of ease. Like she knew him better than she did.
And that was weird. Winry wasn't used to people without blockades. It was unnerving, and she had never been quick enough on her feet to prepare herself for him.
He introduced her to his comrades whom she did not know. He called her the most up-and-coming automail virtuoso in Central, Miss Winry Rockbell, when he presented her. Like he would know. She thought the gesture sweet nevertheless. Winry noticed early on a particular pattern in his introductions: when Jean presented her to a female colleague, he offered casual gesticulations or rested his hands on his hips, but when he introduced her to a man, he rested one hand on her back, between her naked shoulder blades. His touch was galvanizing, like he was touching live jumper cables to her instead of his big, warm palm. Despite her best efforts, it was hard not let him distract her.
Jean excused himself to get them drinks, and Winry sank into a seat at an empty table. Her feet were not used to the punishments of the socialite lifestyle, but she was too self-conscious to rub her aching arches. She distracted herself, instead, by flying up into her head and far away from the party. It was a self-destructive pass-time, over-thinking things, but it was one she was used to. And boy, was she good at it.
This was not her society. She came from tobacco-chewing, slang-using, blue-collar people who got dirty when they worked with their hands. Winry glanced down at her palms, at the wood grain pattern the ground-in dirt made on her fingertips. And she remembered that feeling of being an interloper, of thinking everyone knew she had no business being there. This was Edward's society. She had friends there, for sure, but she looked like all the rest of the small-town girls who had spent their rent payments on a ridiculous dresses and were trying to snag good husbands while they still had the looks to manage it. The place was crawling with them.
There was something different now, though. This was her second Officer's Ball to attend, and the first one, almost a decade prior, had been a lesson in isolation. But this one? Jean was so welcoming, like she had every right to be there.
But he also had called her Country Mouse. And Winry reminded herself that, despite Jean's best efforts, she really had no business being there.
"You okay?" Jean asked when he came back to the table.
Winry plucked at a thread on the table cloth. "Fine," she said in the least convincingly fine voice she had in her.
"I got you champagne. Hope that's okay." He held up his hands, her champagne in one and his screwdriver in the other.
He set the flute down in front of her, and she downed it.
"Easy there, Pidg," Jean said, laughing. "Most people around here sip that stuff."
"I'm getting another," she announced.
And before Winry knew it, she was, maybe, three champagnes in, the room was over-hot, Jean was the sweetest thing on two feet, and her partial nudity in public was only an afterthought. It felt like there was static in the connections between her head and her body. Winry's feet didn't really seem to want to do what she told them, but walking came from muscle memory, so she just trusted that her legs would remember because her brain was not about to instruct them.
Winry didn't realize it at first, but she was drunk. Good and drunk. And the right solution to her feeling out of place in that ballroom was definitely not getting drunk. At the moment, though, it felt like it could have been.
She must have put on a pretty convincing not-drunk act because Jean asked her to dance. She said yes because, well, he was the sweetest thing on two feet.
He led her out onto the floor, which was loosely crowded with other couples, swaying and chatting. Winry couldn't feel her feet. She felt like she was floating, although, she would later realize, she probably had stumbled her ass all the way there.
The band started something slow and lilting when they came up. Something about summer heat and passion and, probably, love or whatever, but the song alit on her ears in piecemeal. Jean turned her around toward him, and it felt like he had spun her. When she stumbled on her big, drunk feet in their high, precarious heels, Jean swooped his arm around her back. Perhaps to an onlooker, his arm firmly pressing her to the front of his uniform might have looked like fervor. In reality, though, he was keeping her from spilling herself all over the dance floor. Like a big, drunk idiot.
"Careful there, Pidg," he said over the string of moments when Winry couldn't hold her own weight. He set her back on her feet. "I think you've had enough for tonight," he laughed. She felt her head rock back on her neck, like the joint in there was too loose. She watch the smile slip off his face, and the line between his eyebrows deepened as he drew his brows close.
She hated herself for that face. She tried to remember what made her think drinking would make the situation better.
"Do you want to leave?" he asked more generously than she thought she deserved.
He had awfully large hands. He held her right hand, curled his fingers around hers like he was cupping a bird. He pressed his palm to the middle of her bare back, and she felt his fingertips on both her shoulder blades. The sharp contrast of his warm, dry skin and the cool air on her back lured so much of her attention.
She must have stared at him too long.
"Pidg," he said, squeezing her hand a little. "Say the word, and we'll go."
This was Edward's party. It was Jean's party, and Winry could tell he was trying his damnedest to fix that for her. "Thanks for not letting me fall down," she said instead of an answer.
That loose joint in her neck failed again, and she felt the piping on his uniform coat pressing into her cheek. He adjusted his arm around her back, tightened his grip a little.
"No problem," he said.
They danced another because it was nice just to dangle and let Jean lead. He put her where she was supposed to go and said he could barely feel her through his boots. As the night progressed and, perhaps, the champagne did its rounds, the dance floor got more and more crowded. Winry's head was still decidedly unclear, so she told Jean that she needed a glass of water. He nodded and followed her off the floor.
As they walked toward a table, he put his arm around her shoulder. She looked down at her shoulder then up to his face. Winry's intention was not to question him, but it must have come off that way because he whispered, "Trying to help you walk a straight line."
They moved through occupied tables, full of austere-looking men and what Winry thought were painfully elegant women, and she felt a rush of gratitude for Jean every time someone cast a sidelong glance at them.
When he tried to sit her down at an empty table, she refused. "I need to walk more," she said as the post-fun-stage of drunk crept up into her blood. Now she felt rather tired and distracted and just dizzy. Jean got out of her way when she staggered up to the bar. He did, however, intercede before she could open her mouth and pour stupid out to the bartender.
Jean put up his index and middle fingers of his right hand. "Gimme two waters," he said to the nearest bartender.
"Do you think all those people could tell I was drunk?" she whispered to Jean as they took seats at the bar. Winry propped herself up on the bar while Jean rotated in his seat and rested his elbows on the edge behind him.
"I've got your back," he said. "With luck, they'll all just think you're ass over teakettle for me."
Winry didn't find that terribly comforting. "I didn't mean to get drunk," she said. That was kind of a lie, but she really hadn't meant to get that drunk. At least, if she had known how much worse getting that drunk was going to make the situation, she wouldn't have.
The ice was clinking in her glass when she lifted it to her mouth. "Why are you shaking like that?"
"These things make me nervous," was all Winry said.
He began turning little partial circles on his squeaky barstool. "Why's that?"
She scrunched up her face and looked over her shoulder at the crowd. "I feel like they're all judging me."
"You know," Jean said, after a long draw from his drink, "Other than having the nicest biceps in this room, there's nothing about the way you look that would make you stick out in this group."
It did not even occur to her that she could be offended by that—in fact, he had managed to compliment her and calm her down—until he put up his hands and stammered out, "I don't mean you don't stand out or anything, Pidg. Because you do." He had lost her. Her face must have shown it because he went on. "You're probably the nicest looking girl in here, which makes you stand out plenty, but I'm just saying no one would know you don't belong." He paused. "Because you do belong. I mean, you could. You have every right to be here." He was starting to look a little deflated, so Winry rested a hand on his knee.
"That's a sweet thing to say," she told him. He looked grateful.
They worked at their waters and hung around the bar a while longer. Jean whispered stories to her about the men and women who passed, and Winry had to snort into her hand quite a few times. She could tell he was feeling encouraged by her laughter, and she was just fine with that. Also, and she didn't know if this was intentional or not, but Jean told her a lot of really unflattering things about these people, and she wondered if he were trying to make her more comfortable. Level the playing field a little.
While they chatted, Winry was distantly aware of the music playing in the background. Only when Jean stopped mid-sentence and looked over at the dance floor did she really pay it any attention. Winry looked over as well. The band had started a fast, bouncy number, and almost immediately, the age demographic on the floor changed drastically. Just about everyone over thirty retreated to their tables, leaving a flock of young soldiers and even younger women.
"Ngh," Jean grumbled.
Winry couldn't help but chuckle. "What?"
"They're jitterbuggin'. I love jitterbuggin'."
He didn't sound like a man talking about something he loved. "I don't know how," Winry said. "Do you want to teach me?"
He watched them a moment longer than she expected him to. And when he looked back at her, he had a tight, almost apologetic smile on his face. "Give me a ring in six to eight months when I'm through physical therapy."
She heard that tinkling, crystalline sound you hear when your heart breaks from sympathy for someone other than yourself, and she let a compassionate smile dance over her features for only a moment. Winry put a hand on his forearm. "Why don't you just upgrade to automail? I'll outfit you for cheap."
"Forget that," he said, and for a moment, she was afraid she had offended him. "Charge full price. We'll submit the invoice to HR and be done with it."
That surprised her a little. She wasn't accustomed to her attempts to make someone feel better actually succeeding. Typically, she was just putting one dinky bandaid on a big, old wound, and Winry could tell that she had touched on an acre of hurt within him. Still, he smiled at her, like he had actually noticed her trying to make it better, like it might have worked, even if in the smallest of ways.
Winry felt encouraged. "Well, we should go ahead and schedule something then."
He turned toward his left, to face her, and put his weight on a single elbow against the bar. "I could pencil you in tomorrow for lunch."
There was that bubble of excitement in her chest, which, had she not swallowed it down, probably would have come out as a giggle. "Okay," her voice said, breathier and higher than she expected it to. Jean grinned crookedly at her.
And then Winry saw him. He materialized over Jean's shoulder. If she had known it would happen, if she had had even the slightest inkling that it would happen, she never would have agreed to come to that stupid gala at all. She saw a tail of blonde hair over blue-coated shoulders. He was practically draped over the bar, leaning heavily on his right arm with his back rotated toward her. But she saw the gloved hand, the slumped posture, and the telltale jerkiness of a man with automail in dire need of a tune-up.
It was Edward.
Winry felt her world telescope in on him. As he turned on his stool to face the bar, the hollowness of his stubbly cheek, the dark circles under his eyes, the pale papery tightness of his skin all closed around her trachea like a fist. And she knew, as her eyes refused to shift away, that she was not going to be as okay with seeing him as she would pretend to be.
And he looked terrible. Like he needed sleep and a descent meal and a friend.
Winry hadn't made any effort to find Ed when she moved to Central. She heard his name in other people's conversations—it's hard to live in a military town and work on automail without hearing about him—but she would always hear it, latch on for just a moment, and then release it down the river. It was almost to the point where it was painless. Not easy, though. Never easy, but it was more like pushing a door closed on a windy day than like ripping a rotten tooth out of her head.
But he was still a wind at Winry's door. Still pushing to get back in. And he didn't even know it. And if he did, Winry would have bet her next paycheck that he wouldn't care.
How do you ignore a whole chapter of your life when it comes up and sits a few seats down from you at the bar? But how do you say fuck him to a man who looked like he'd just stopped taking care of himself?
How do forgive yourself when you've been saying fuck him for a year? When, perhaps, if you had done something sooner, he wouldn't be sitting alone at a bar, looking sick and thin.
Winry's heart started to race, and her blood was still so thin that she could hear the rush in her ears. She took a breath and another, but she couldn't seem to fill her lungs, like something was cinching them in the middle.
A hand fell on her upper arm.
"Pidg?" Jean said. "You're pale as a sheet."
Winry blinked and the world widened again. There was Jean sitting next to her.
"You gonna puke?"
She assessed herself for a moment. "Maybe."
"Let's get some air," he said knowingly, nodding toward the large doors that opened onto a terrace along one wall of the ballroom. Winry nodded her agreement. Before she could even get off her stool, Jean was up and closing an arm around her shoulders. It wasn't that sort of casual, affectionate gesture business. It felt like he was pinching her together, and he used it to steer her the hell out of there.
The big, glass-paned doors all stood open, and Jean held aside the airy curtains and let Winry pass under his arm. They moved out onto a wide, marble terrace, bordered by a heavy balustrade. A few other people spotted the area sparsely, and Winry felt blessedly alone out there.
Just being away from the bar and out of the thick heat a room full of people generates loosened up her lungs, and Winry was gulping down air without realizing it. She dropped her elbows onto the railing and leaned herself forward.
"You want me to hold back your hair?" Jean asked as he rested a hip against the railing to her right. He set his hand between her shoulder blades, and if she weren't so distracted, it probably would have felt like a jolt.
"No, I'm okay," Winry said. "I just needed to breathe."
"Did something set you off back there, or was it just the champagne?"
He sounded concerned. Sincerely concerned. Winry looked up at him. His brow was drawn together, and he was tilted just slightly over the railing so he could get a better view of her face.
Winry realized then that she was being embarrassingly demanding. She had always tried so hard not to be that way, which made it all the more embarrassing. She had been so proud of being low maintenance, of being the kind of girl you could leave without seeing her flinch. She had cultivated that, practiced the routine while absolutely not flinching.
Because he hadn't been flinching when he left. Winry wasn't going to be the one with her heart in her lap because, unless Edward pulled his out of his luggage once he was on that train, there were no naked, vulnerable affections on his end.
And he, goddamn him, was not going to get through to her. Not this time.
And why would he? If Winry didn't bare herself, wide open and waiting, he would never get in, right? It's not like he was going to try.
"Why did you bring me here?" Winry asked. She hung her head from her shoulders and looked up at Jean.
He shrunk away a little and withdrew his hand. "I... I thought you'd have a good time. Catch up with old friends."
She looked down. "That's not what I meant. I mean, me. Why'd you bring me?"
Winry could tell that that startled him. It was kind of a doozy of a question for a first date. "Oh, well, um," Jean cleared his throat. He fished a cigarette out of the inner pocket in his coat and lit it with a match that he tossed off the balcony. "First of all, you're beautiful." He said it so matter-of-factly that Winry could almost accept it. And more importantly, he said it like it was a factor, but it wasn't the factor. "I'm looking around this party and wondering how many of these people are asking what radio contest a clown like me would have to win to get a date with a girl like you."
Winry snorted. She couldn't help it.
"Secondly, you're a lot smarter than I am, and I like that in a girl," he added.
What she had done to give him that impression, she had no idea.
"And," he started and hesitated. Winry watched him struggle with the words, and had she been wearing socks, they would have taken off down the veranda and out into the gardens below. The closest equivalent she had to socks at that moment would have been her pantyhose, and Winry was starting to notice him inadvertently charming those off, too. "I know it sounds corny, but I respect you as a mechanic."
Winry didn't expect that. It was really sincere-sounding and downright original, and Winry didn't know men could do that.
He went on when she looked up. "You're holding your own in a field dominated by men twice your age. And, on top of that, you're really good at it." He shrugged. "I think anyone who doesn't notice all that has got to be blind and half-dumb."
Winry would have given anything to have the right string of words just then, to be able to put more delicately, I sure do like you a lot. She wanted to tell him how much she appreciated his sincerity and how taken aback she was by him and how, compared to her last Officer's Ball, the night had still been pretty rough, but only because she was an idiot. He had done everything right. Everything.
Instead she asked, "Do you want to dance again?"
And later that night, when Winry was standing on her stoop one step above him and still looking up, Jean asked, "Can I kiss you yet?" and she said, "Okay." And that was amazing because she hadn't been kissed in a year, and she hadn't been properly kissed ever, which Winry did not know until he did it.
At her door, for the few seconds when Jean was kissing her goodnight, all those distracting buzzings on the periphery of her mind dimmed blissfully. Even the aching in her feet faded. Her senses were overwhelmed by his hands on her upper arms and his mouth on hers. He smell liked cigarette smoke and soap and aftershave, and in the little part of her brain that she could tear away from that axis-wobbling kiss, she thought of the intimacy of it. Of inhaling the breath that had just come out of his lungs, of breathing in the air off his skin. And if only she could bottle that moment, she would have spent the rest of the night taking shots of it.
He told her to come find him tomorrow at the Autoshop at headquarters. Winry said that she would, and he waited until her door was unlocked and she was inside before getting into his car.
But as soon as they were apart, the buzzings came back. Winry went to bed thinking of Edward at the bar, and when she wasn't doing that, she was feeling like a monster for it.