Glossy metal scraps were strewn across the table in a way that would seem, to an ordinary person, irregular and jumbled. Winry Rockbell, however, knew the order in which the pieces lay by heart. Most of them had been labeled, just in case, but this was just a quick upgrade.
The automail had been stripped of several vital components, but it was still obviously a leg. The unlucky owner of the limb, Edward, was in the living room. They hadn’t been able to find a working prosthetic for him to borrow, and Pinako was currently visiting Hohenheim’s grave, so he was confined to the couch with only a blanket, an old book or two and a sandwich to keep him from growing bored.
There was the distinct sound of a book snapping shut. “Are you done with it yet?” Ed’s irritated voice drifted in.
Winry turned to the door to yell a short rebuttal—“No! Stop bothering me!”—before turning back to her work. Same old Ed. He was probably still mad about her stealing his leg while he was still asleep. It wasn’t her fault inspiration had struck so early this morning, or that Edward was a lazy bum who’d still been flat on his back long after the sun had risen.
Unscrewing the shin guard, Winry set it down carefully on the table. It was in dire need of a polishing job, which she’d probably have to do herself later. Edward didn’t care for the appearance of his automail so much as whether it was in working condition. Not that he cared about that, either. She sighed. How was it even possible for the brand-new model to already have accumulated this many scratches?
She could hear Ed messing around in the living room. There was a slap, followed by one of his many muttered profanities. She had just decided to tune him out when an egregious crash sounded. At that point, she stood up to investigate.
Edward had somehow managed to fall off the couch. He was reclining awkwardly against the floor, his one good leg still resting on the couch cushions above him. An intense expression marred his face, and for a moment, Winry worried he had injured himself. She quickened her pace down the hall, only to come to an abrupt stop in the doorjamb as Edward lifted both hands and clapped.
It was a simple and familiar action, one that she had grown accustomed to in the past. Back then, it had always produced fantastic results. Now, however, it did nothing more than make Edward glare at his empty palms and growl with frustration.
Winry stood frozen in the hallway, at war with herself. Part of her wanted to kneel down and lend him her strength, yet deep inside she wondered if he needed to bear this alone.
Then Ed’s absolutely pathetic attempt to climb back onto the couch made up Winry’s mind for her.
“Wha—hey, get off,” he grumbled as she hoisted him up.
“Let me help,” she insisted.
He sighed. “Fine.”
Years of lugging around heavy prosthetic limbs for customers had made Winry stronger than she looked. Her arms locked across Ed’s collarbone, pulling him up by his arms as he pushed against the floor with his leg. Once he was settled back on the couch, Winry let go of him and retreated, turning her face aside.
Edward pulled the large book back onto his lap and glued his eyes to the text. One hand groped around the table next to the couch arm until he located his half-eaten sandwich and took an unhurried bite out of it. A few crumbs tapped the pages, breaking his concentration long enough to make him notice that Winry hadn’t gone back into her little studio at the end of the hall.
He glanced up at her, swallowing. “Uhm, shouldn’t you get back to…?”
She was staring at the open book. It was a tome Al had found concerning alkahestry. Winry clutched her elbow self-consciously. “Yeah, I—I’ll do that.” She marched away from him without looking back, and he immediately reconsidered his phrasing. His face reddened.
“Winry, I don’t mean—it’s not like…” He craned his neck to stare at the window, speaking out of the corner of his mouth. “I just need my leg back.”
Winry slowed to a stop, drawing her shoulders in. “Edward, I’m sorry…”
“Sorry for what? Oh, no, you didn’t break it, did you? Gahhhh, Winry, I need that thing…!”
“I’m sorry you can’t use alchemy anymore. It’s not fair.” There were unshed tears heavy in her voice now.
Edward sat up straight, one eyebrow competing with his antennae for height. “Where did this come from all of a sudden? I told you I’m fine with it.”
“No, you’re not!” she choked.
Edward leaned forward and held out one hand, but she was too far away to reach. His voice softened. “Hey, I thought I told you…I don’t want to see you crying anymore. Not for me.”
“But it’s so…” she spun around, her blond hair whirling like a Xingese paper fan. “How can you be so calm about this? You dedicated your whole life to it and now…”
“No, I didn’t. I dedicated my life to getting Al’s body back. Mine, too.” He shrugged. “Sure, it was about resurrecting mom at first, and it was great to have the power in between, but I did what I set out to do. That’s enough. Don’t worry about it, Winry, okay?”
She remained unconvinced, but she nodded for him. “Okay.” Then she hurried back to her room. She left the door ajar and sank back down into her chair, trying to remember where she had left off. Right…the ankle joint needed adjusting for flexibility. She unscrewed the rod that represented the tibia.
She’d been playing around with ways to increase its rotation capacity for several minutes when the sound came again. Winry winced, trying to ignore it. There was nothing she could do about this. She just had to fix his leg so he could find something else to think about.
Smack!… Clap!… Whap!…
She was beginning to seriously regret taking Ed’s automail from him.
“Well, it’s awful quiet in here. What are you kids up to?”
Winry dashed to the living room, relieved to hear Pinako’s voice. The diminutive old woman stood at the back door, yanking it shut with one foot. Her arms were full with a paper bag of produce. “Winry, dear,” she said, “clear the table, please. The neighbors just gave me these.”
“I’ll take ‘em, Granny,” Winry said quickly, relieving the elderly woman of the burden.
“How was the graveyard?” Edward yelled with his usual tact.
Pinako Rockbell folded the tablecloth to one side, enveloping all the stray tools and bolts along with it. “You should have come along if you wanted to know! There wasn’t a cloud in the sky this morning.”
“Well, excuse me! I probably would have if your granddaughter hadn’t confiscated my foot!” He jerked his thumb towards his mechanic.
A set of wrinkled, dubious eyes flicked over to the girl. “Winry.”
“Er, didn’t Al go with you?” Winry set the bag of vegetables down, casually changing the subject. Edward hmmed and gave her a knowing sidelong glance.
“That’s right, he did, but he went on into town. Had a doctor’s appointment.”
“Ohh, that’s right,” Ed muttered, his head lolling as he recalled the date checked on his brother’s calendar until his golden eyes rested back on his book. He flicked the page idly.
Pinako picked up on his dull expression as she unwound a scarf from her neck. “Ed seems a bit quiet today,” she whispered.
Still glancing back at him, Winry took Pinako’s weathered hand and led her into the more private kitchen, where they could exchange a few quiet words. “He’s been thinking about alchemy again,” she explained, her fingernails straying between her teeth. Her gaze did not leave the doorway they’d come through. “He hasn’t said anything outright, but…”
Before she could even finish her sentence, the noise came back. Edward was clapping again. The sound echoed around the house, and Winry exchanged glances with her grandmother.
“I see.” Pinako scratched her chin, then nodded. Stumping back over to the table, she fished around inside the paper bag of vegetables and came up with an unlikely prize: a half-empty bottle of alcohol. She’d brought it along on her trip to the cemetery.
The noise had ceased, and Edward was once again engrossed in his book, but when the glass bottle tapped against his shoulder, he turned to find the little old woman offering it to him with a knowing look.
His eyebrows shot up, confused with a dose of concern. “Granny, what’s this for?”
“I’ve been looking for a new drinking buddy,” she said seriously.
“I don’t think I’m ready for that quite yet,” he laughed.
Her eyebrows rose. “You’re probably more qualified than anyone I know, kid.”
“Well, uh, yeah, but—” he spluttered for a reason to decline. “What is this about, anyway?”
She patted him on the shoulder. “I know things have been tough for you.”
“Not that tough. I got my arm back, Al has his body again, we’re home…things are looking up, actually.”
Pinako continued to stare at him with an uneven brow, probing for hidden emotions, but he just blinked and smiled, baffled. Eventually she took the decanter and shrugged, pulling away. “All right, bean, but let me know if you change your mind.”
His eye twitched. “Yeah, okay…” His tone softened a touch. “Maybe I’ll take you up on that. Sometime. I don’t know…” He bit into what remained of his sandwich as an excuse to stop talking.
She gave his shoulder blades one last affectionate smack. “That’s good enough for me. Winry, what are you doing slacking off in the kitchen? You’re keeping our best customer waiting!”
Edward choked, spitting chunks of meat and bread across his lap. “Are you charging me for this!?”
Winry managed to feign an evil cackle as she hurried back to her room, using it to drown out Edward’s loud protests.
Yet, in the hours that followed, as Winry settled back into her work and Pinako went to have a smoke on the porch, both of them couldn’t help but hear when the clapping resumed.
When Alphonse’s footsteps plodded up the steps to the porch, the two women converged on him. He gave them a cheery smile in greeting. His breathing was a bit heavy, coming in visible puffs in the crisp fall air, but he didn’t seem half as tired as he used to. “Look! I don’t have to walk with a cane anymore!”
“That’s wonderful, Al!” Winry exclaimed, but Al’s attention was immediately flicking past them to the front door she was closing behind her.
“Where’s brother? I want to show him. I think he was worrying about me for a while there,” he laughed.
“We need to ask you a favor first,” Winry said quickly.
“But where’s Ed?” he put quizzically.
“Busy,” Pinako answered.
“Actually, we need you to talk to him. He wouldn’t listen to us,” Winry said sadly, tugging her fingers through her straight blond hair.
Al’s head tilted. “About what?”
“He keeps…” Winry pressed her palms together quietly. “…doing this.”
The boy’s mouth formed an ‘o’ of surprise. “But Ed’s not like that. He never dwells on the past.”
“Maybe you could just get him to open up about it,” Pinako suggested.
“I can try.” He adopted a determined expression as the door was opened for him. It only took him a moment to leave his cane at the door and cross into the living room, waving. “Hey, Ed! I can walk on my own now!”
“Great! That makes one of us,” Ed exclaimed, his voice rising pointedly.
Winry felt a light buffet from behind her, shoving her toward her room.
“Get back to work,” her grandmother chuckled.
“Okay, okay, I’m going!” she called. She ducked against the wall in the hallway to peek at the two brothers as they began to squabble.
“Ed, put a shirt on! For goodness’ sakes. It’s October, you’re going to catch a cold.”
“Oh, sure thing! Let me just hop on over to my room and get one.”
“You could’ve asked Winry!”
Ed’s voice got gradually higher-pitched as a blush crept over his face. “I’m not going to ask her to go through my stuff! And I’m not cold!”
Al just sighed heavily and Winry ducked into her room as he went to find a clean shirt for his hopeless older brother. When he went back into the living room, he tossed the white fabric at Ed’s face. He struggled with it for a moment before slipping into the sleeves like a diver cutting into water. “Thanks.”
The younger boy sat down on the edge of the couch without comment, steepling his fingers across his knees. He turned to Ed with a dim smile. “So, while we’re here…”
Edward stared at the back of the couch, his mouth attempting to slide off of his face the way it did whenever he was uncomfortable. “What is it? First Winry, then Pinako, and now you…have I been avoiding people to the point where they feel the need to get me trapped before they can discuss anything?”
“I just wanna talk,” Al said benignly.
“Is this about alchemy?” Ed asked, meeting his gaze.
Al fumbled. “Well…”
His older brother’s golden eyes took on a shifty, paranoid look. He held up his hands to illustrate his theory with gestures. “Knew it! Okay, look, I dunno what’s up with Winry today, but I think she got it into her head that I’m upset about something.”
“Maybe because yesterday was October third?”
Ed stopped, frowning, his eyebrows drawn into a line as he looked up. “It was?”
“…How did you know about that?”
Al shrugged. “It wasn’t much of a secret to keep after we got our bodies back.”
“Well…anyway, I can promise you I wasn’t upset about that. I didn’t even realize.” He laughed at some inside joke. “I forgot.”
“Then what are you upset about?”
Ed jolted, realizing he’d trapped himself with his own words. “That’s not what I meant! I’m not upset at all! Why does everyone think I am?! And Winry!” he barked down the hall. “I can still see you back there!”
Winry squeaked and shot into her room, but her swirling ponytail gave her away. Al stood up as Ed continued his ranting.
“You might as well come out! Is there something I don’t know?”
“Maybe this is about your mother,” Pinako suggested to Alphonse, appearing beside them.
“What does Mom have to do with you guys acting weird around me all day?” Ed sounded exasperated.
Setting his hands on his hips, Al stared at him sternly. “From what I hear, you’re the one acting weird!”
Ed dragged his bottom eyelid down with two fingers. “If you’re going to say I’m not out there living life just because I’ve been on the couch this whole time, I have two words for you…” He pointed to the stump below his knee. “Stolen. Automail.”
“It’ll be better when I’m done with it!” Winry said defensively as she trailed closer.
He got serious for a second. “I honestly believe it will, Winry. I do. You make the best stuff on the market! I’m just saying, I did have stuff to do today, so I’d like it back soon. And just because I still like reading alchemy textbooks doesn’t mean I’m hung up on it.”
“Then what was all that earlier?” she cried.
“What earlier?” Ed shifted, suddenly distracted.
“Don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about! I could hear you from my room!”
His eyes met hers briefly before wandering over into space. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“I heard ya, too, Ed.” Pinako patted his hair. “It’s all right. We just want you to be honest.”
“About—” He clapped at the air in front of them, then glowered at his empty hands. “—What?”
Alphonse was taken aback by the action, as though he hadn’t really believed the two Rockbells until this moment.
Winry dug her fingers into her scalp, messing up her hair. “You’re doing it now!!”
“Doing what?” Ed inquired, then he lunged upward, his hands snapping together like the jaws of a wolf. “Aha! You’re mine!! I finally got you!”
“Huhh?” Al managed as Ed cackled and apparently cursed out his palms, glaring and grinning at them as he pried them apart.
A little dark spot stained the skin under his fingers. “This stupid fly has been buzzing around my head all day.”
“A…fly?” Winry asked blankly.
“This is…about…a fly?” Al glanced at her.
Pinako snorted. Then suddenly everyone was laughing, Winry slumping against the couch as Al doubled over, guffawing. Edward was the only one not in on the joke. One eyebrow arched in hopeless confusion as he watched them giggle until they ran out of breath.