++++ ++++ ++++
Days and weeks pass as they are apt to do and before Winry knew it, more like before she was ready, the train she was on pulled into Central. Months had passed since she’d last seen Ed and while she missed him, she wasn’t ready to face him either.
Their last meeting was far from her finest hour.
She didn’t remember a lot from that night outside of crying herself to sleep but she didn’t think she’d ever forget the look on his face when her open palm had connected with his cheek. Just thinking about it made her cringe. She has apologized many times but not one of them ever seemed good enough. None of them ever made the guilt and embarrassment she felt over her actions go away. Many nights when thinking about it she buried her face in her pillow in an effort to hide from her shame.
But she couldn’t hide from it now.
He would be there waiting for her and there was no escaping it this time. She couldn’t shake her head and shift her focus to that new tool shop in town. She couldn’t hum long and loud until she could no longer hear her own thoughts. She couldn’t rewrite history in her head so that she handled it in any other way than the way she had actually handled it.
Taking a deep breath, she stood up and filed in line with the other passengers exiting the train. As she tried to steel her nerves, she kept her eyes trained out the window. The moment she saw him she froze. All of the courage she’d gathered to face him left her in a moment’s time. She stopped moving so suddenly the passenger behind her bumped into her. Mumbling apologies, she shifted to the side, into an empty row of seats.
Her eyes remained locked on the man she still loved as she thought, why did he have to be so perfect? So handsome? So brilliant? So very, very Ed? Here she was a bundle of nerves and he was standing out there on the platform, no doubt scanning the crowd for her, looking as exquisite as ever. His nearly waist length hair was down and free of its usual braid. He had on a teal colored tank top and for the first time ever she saw him standing in a crowded public place with his arm in full view. He didn’t have on his usual black pants but the white ones in their place were a pleasant shift from the expected. He was everything she wanted to run away from yet toward at the same time.
As the last few people on the train shuffled by her, Winry realized she couldn’t hide on the locomotive forever and merged back into the line. When she stepped off the train, he was looking away from her. The instant he turned around and saw her, his face melted into a smile. She’d been so afraid everything between them was broken forever that seeing that smile made her sinking heart soar.
Jumping off the train, she ran the length of the platform and flung herself at him. When he picked her up and twirled her around as he always did everything was all right with the world.
The only tears involved were tears of joy and they were both shedding them.
With the first night spent up all hours talking to both brothers, Winry slept most of the next day. After she woke, Ed took her by the Hughes residence to see them and as luck would have it Roy was there as well. When they left the house of a thousand pictures he took her out to lunch. They were both chattering on, talking back and forth like they always have. Everything was normal and fine and chill and… Still dancing around that elephant.
They were closing in on it but they hadn’t touched it yet. When she asked him if there was anything new going on in Central, Ed took a drink of his tea and decided to go for it.
“A couple of things in the form of a new theater and a new museum. Jean and I went to the grand opening of the museum just last week.”
As that elephant peaked around the corner and waved its trunk at them, he heard her swallow hard. When she took an extra-long and noticeably slow drink out of her lemonade, he made it a point not to stare. They could do this. Ed had faith in them both. As he waited for her to reply, his ham and pepper jack cheese sub became the most fascinating thing this side of Hayden.
“That sounds interesting,” she finally said. “What kind of museum is it?”
“It’s a world history museum. It even has some interesting facts about Xing. It was a shame that exhibit was incomplete.”
“I… I didn’t peg Jean as a history buff.”
“He isn’t but he likes it well enough to check out a grand opening but I don’t see him going back anytime soon.”
“What about the Xing exhibit? Don’t you want to see it once it’s finished?”
“I do,” Ed replied and he polished off the second half of his sandwich. “but I’m a big boy I could just as easily go by myself. That or take Roy, he likes that sort of thing too.”
When she chuckled, he asked her what was so funny.
“You and Roy. He was Colonel Bastard for so long it’s weird to hear about you two getting along so well. If I hadn’t realized you were purposefully leaving out your exploits with Jean when we talked, I’d think you were dating Roy instead.”
...and there it was. One pale pachyderm front and center.Golden eyes met blue eyes and the air was so tense they could feel the unspoken words scraping across their skin.
“I didn’t do it to insult you. I did it because I thought that would be best,” Ed replied honestly.
“It probably was,” she admitted lowly. “So thank you.”
“You’re welcome,” the relief in Ed’s voice was tangible. “I hope you know I’d never do anything to hurt you on purpose.”
“I know and for what it’s worth I’m sorry for everything. More sorry than I have words for.”
“It’s okay and you have apologized a dozen times so make that the last one alright? You’re forgiven.”
She smiled, nodded and said, “So how has your relationship with Jean been?”
“It's ok Winry, you don't need to ask about that, it must be weird for you to hear about it”
“Yes, to be honest it is, but if we are going to get our friendship back on track I need to get over that, so spill it. How has it been? All roses?”
Ed wasn’t feeling as confident as she was about this but he was willing to give it a try. After a deep breath he replied with an honest, “For the most part.”
“It’s nothing really big but he seems to clam up at times. I feel like he doesn’t really get what pushes me to do some of the things I do.”
“Well that was loaded yet vague,” she said as she gave him a skeptical look. “Want to try that again? Using actual useful information this time.”
“Sometimes we talk for hours and everything is great then other times I’ll kick off a conversation and it’s almost as if he wants nothing to do with it. I get one word answers or nothing at all.”
“You can be a little highbrow at times Ed. Maybe it’s the topic.”
“I wouldn’t exactly call me discussing my road trip misadventures abstruse Win.”
“Point taken,” she said before taking another bite of the pickle on her plate. “I’m at a loss for ideas for that one. Any other examples come to mind?”
“The local orphanage.”
“The one with the funding and space issues?”
Ed nodded and proceeded to tell her about Jean’s reaction to him being so dedicated to helping them. It wasn't so much that he wanted Jean’s assistance with the matter, it would be nice but it wasn’t necessary, Ed merely wanted Jean to understand and respect why it was so important to him and Al.
“Your commitment to that particular cause shouldn’t be a stretch for him to wrap his brain around. I’m sure he knows we were orphans once too.”
“I know he knows that but I guess part of him only sees who I am now without realizing how easy it would have been for me and Al to end up in one of those places. Despite everything we’ve been through, we were lucky.”
“Being a genius tends to have its perks,” she replied with a wink.
Ed nodded but his smile was still thin and melancholy, “True but the oddest things leave me floundering.”
“Like how to fix this so it feels comfortable. I don’t feel right leaving this dangling between us. As I said before, it’s not a huge deal and I don’t expect him to be a clone of me but…”
“But it wouldn’t hurt for him to be a little more interested in your world.”
“I say try working it strongly in reverse. Schedule some serious time, like a whole weekend or something, doing things that are all about his interests and see if it sparks him to do the same.”
“That’s actually a really good idea.”
She smirked at him and said, “Thank you, if nothing else this will give you some time and material to figure things out.”
“Are you really sure Jean’s the one for you?”
Ed’s stomach dropped. He didn’t know where that line of questioning was going but he didn’t like it. He didn’t know what he was going to do if she…
“Because you certainly seem to spend a lot of your time with Roy.”
Left hook received.
“I know you were omitting your interactions with Jean when we spoke but that does nothing to change the fact that you still did all of those things you would talk about, with Roy. The beauty pageant, that singing contest, all of those research projects, the cooking over the weekends, that wine tasting... it just seems like you two spend a lot of time together. A lot of fun times to be honest.”
“Have you been talking to, Al?”
“Yes, but not about this.”
“We’re just friends Win. Nothing going on there.”
“Would you like there to be?”
Ed nearly choked on his tea.
“What made you ask me that?”
“It was just a question. But I will say, you two disappeared together at Hughes’ place almost the instant you saw each other and when I found you out on the porch, you two were standing shoulder to shoulder, leaning against the porch rail laughing over something.”
“We are friends Winry. That’s it.”
“That isn’t an answer to the question I asked you.”
“I’m fine with us being friends.”
“Still yet another excellent avoidance of answering my query.”
“Winry,” Ed growled.
“Fine, get in a huff about it but you know as well as I do that you’re dodging my question.”
“I’ve never looked at Roy like that,” Ed replied as a litany of memories crossed his mind. Roy laughing at Hughes’ jokes, Roy at the office picnic, Roy with him at the haunted house, Roy at the…
“If you did look, what would you see?”
She was staring at Ed so intently he couldn’t blink. When Ed sat there unmoving and silent for several minutes Winry let him off the hook.
“Don’t bust a gasket over there, okay? What are we doing next?”
“I… uh we… I think… shit!”
Seeing Ed so flustered made her giggle. He was pretty hard to rile up now that he wasn’t so blasted short. She wasn’t doing it to be mean but once she got over herself and was able to listen to him as her friend again she heard one thing over everything else… Roy. A lot of Roy to be frank. She was no expert in such things but the two of them seemed joined at the hip. Who would have ever thought that Roy Mustang would become Ed’s new Achilles Heel?
Another day came and went and everyone was settled in for the night at the Elric household. Settled but not asleep. Ed was tossing and turning and after more than an hour of that fruitless endeavor he made his way outside. The moon was half-full, the breeze was just right and Ed let out a contented sound as he sat down on the porch swing. He wasn’t out there long before he heard Al come outside as well.
“Everything okay Brother?”
“Actually all is fine. We had a good time today.”
“From what I could see, it was just what you two needed. I’m glad.”
“So am I,” Ed replied as he watched a few wispy clouds drift across the night sky. If everything was well, why did he feel so on edge?
“What has you out here at this hour?”
“Not sure to be honest. For whatever reason I couldn’t settle down and sleep.”
“Something on your mind?”
“Isn’t that always the case?”
Al chuckled, “Touché Brother. What I really meant was is there anything in particular?”
“No,” Ed lied. “Not really.”
“But kinda sort of?”
“Would you like to talk about it?”
“Not even remotely.”
Al gave him a warm smile in response to his honesty, “I’ll be in my room if you change your mind.”
“Thanks Al, sleep well.”
“You do the same Brother.”
Outside of them putting the elephant to rest, Winry's visit was pleasant and uneventful. Ed took Al’s advice and skipped introducing her to Jean. It wasn’t that he thought she couldn’t handle it but he knew salt could still aggravate a recently healed wound. When it was time for her to leave both brothers walked her to the train station to say their goodbyes. Once she was on her way back to Resembool Ed sighed and after seeing the aged look on his brother’s face Al offered to buy him an extra-large slice of red velvet cake as a pick me up.
Food in the form of sugar always brought a smile to Ed’s face.
Never one fond of excess emotion Ed was looking forward to returning to work. There was something beautifully mind numbing about routine. Sure paperwork was monotonous but sometimes that’s just what the doctor ordered. Ed had had enough excitement over the last two weeks. He was ready for a good dose of monotony.
Ed was seated at his desk, about to pick up yet another stack of monotony, when the office door opened to reveal the General.
Not just any General; it was Olivier Armstrong.
Standing immediately along with everyone else Roy came into the outer office, greeted her with a salute and asked, “What brings you down from the Northern Wall General?”
“Not small talk, that I assure you.”
“Of course not,” Roy replied dryly. If anyone were to ask his opinion on the matter this woman had the social grace of a wounded barracuda. “How may I help you?”
“You can do nothing. I have come to retrieve Edward.”
Ed swallowed hard as everyone turned to face him, curiosity and confusion clearly etched all over their faces. When she turned to leave the office, Ed fell in step behind her. She had stated her mission and he didn’t need an engraved invitation to follow her. The woman was in a righteous mood and he wasn’t stupid enough to do anything that would place him on her bad side.
“Will he be returning?” Roy asked and he immediately regretted asking the question the moment it was off his tongue.
The glare she tossed over her shoulder was all the response given.
It was more than he was expecting.
The silence was killing Ed as he walked behind the General but he didn't dare break it. Every set of eyes they passed stopped and stared but he paid them no mind. He knew when it came down to it, it was his head on the chopping block if he was stupid enough to do or say something she deemed unnecessary. The eldest Armstrong was not one for idle chitchat.
When they finally reached her auto she motioned for him to climb in and he did so just as silently as he had made the walk. Once inside the vehicle a set of beautiful ice blue eyes met his via the rearview mirror and the amusement in them was apparent. He had pleased her and now his own smile was breaking free.
“You can drop the scared rabbit routine now Edward. Well done as always.”
Smile wide, Ed relaxed in his seat and said, “It would be a shame if your flawless reputation as the Ice Queen came under fire because of me. Besides I rather like honing my acting skills. Maes says it keeps me useful. Where is he by the way? I assume this is about the unrest near the border?”
“He is already in chambers with Cross. Things have come to a head quicker than we expected so I don’t believe you’ll have many more opportunities to hone those acting skills.”
“That bad huh?”
“Yes, if our eyes and ears are correct.”
“So plan B?”
“Might even have to be plan C Edward. We will probably have less than a year.”
“Damn it all. Any concrete clue what they are building?”
“Somewhat,” she replied as she steered the roadster into the Führer's complex on base. “Specialized tanks that run and operate without a pilot.”
“More deadly than any other attempts we’ve ever seen at this. They are massive, armed to the teeth and they are plentiful.”
“Indeed,” she replied as she parked the car. “Could I entertain you with a thought on lighter matters before we go in?”
“Sure,” Ed said confused but willing to put the seriousness aside for a moment. “Go for it.”
“When it comes time to let Mustang in on this…”
“But why would you think that we…”
“Please, despite my dislike of the man I cannot deny his talent and from what I have seen of these plans you and Hughes have made they stand little chance of being executed successfully without him.”
“Understood,” Ed replied as a smirk slid across his face. She was brisk but he liked that about her. No one ever said they didn’t know where they stood with Olivier Mira Armstrong.
“As I was saying, when the time comes please do me one favor.”
“Name it and it’s yours.”
“I’d love to be there when you make him aware of things. His face is bound to be priceless.”
Ed’s smirk melted into a genuine smile as he nodded. He could manage that.
When Friday rolled around Ed was more than ready to follow everyone as they filed out of the office and straight into the Tavern. It was the beginning of a three day weekend and Ed was willing to kick it off in style. Drinks were poured, billiards were shot, darts were thrown and fun was had by all. Just as everyone was tabbing out Ed plopped down beside Roy and said, “Just a heads up I’m skipping the cooking class with Gracia this Sunday.”
“No worries Edo, I’ll take notes on your behalf. Anything special going on?”
“Thanks and yes. I’m determined to get Jean to do something besides lounge around the house. He says he likes outdoorsy stuff, you know, hiking, boating, fishing, all that jazz so I’m taking him to Bear Mountain for a couple of nights,” Ed said as he looked over at his boyfriend as he helped Fuery clear the pool tables. “I realize he’s a homebody by nature these days but I’m going to get him up and doing something even if it kills me!”
“I wish you all the luck in Amestris.”
“Thanks,” Ed said as he dropped several cenz in the tip jar. “I haven’t been outdoorsy in years so I’m going to need all that luck and then some.”
He should have stayed in Central.
That is all Ed could think as he listened to Jean grumble and groan about the condition of the hiking trails. Hiking was Jean’s idea mind you, but Ed wasn’t stupid enough to mention that with Jean being in the mood he was in. A mile and a half up the mountain Ed called for a break, plopped down on a fallen log and decided maybe he should give his lover an out.
“We don’t have to finish this hike. I saw tons of things to do at the base of the mountain.”
“Ready to quit already?”
Ed wasn’t sure how to answer that. With the way Jean was carrying on about the trails Ed figured Jean would be the one ready to quit.
“Not really, but I think I’m itching to get my hands on a bow and arrow. I’ve never tried it but it looked like fun!”
“Well you’re in luck that happens to be one of my weapons of choice, Love.”
“I’m game if you are,” Ed said as he hopped to his feet feeling confident about everything working out just fine.
When they returned to the base of the mountain, people were milling about setting up targets and handing out papers for an archery competition that was just getting underway. Jean signed up with confidence and with a little prodding from his boyfriend; Ed did the same just for kicks. After taking a short lesson on how to operate the compound bow Ed fired two of his three practice arrows, both sank themselves into the blue area of the target.
“Seems like you’re a natural young fellow,” declared a friendly wide eyed old man that wore an angler’s cap. He lit up his pipe and said, “Hope you are signed up for the contest. Mayumi needs some new competition.”
“I did but I think that was beginners luck. I’ve never fired a bow before.”
“You don’t say?”
“I do say,” Ed replied as he pulled the bow back for his final practice shot, a shot that sank itself in the red zone. “Who is this Mayumi?”
“A sassy little lady only a few years older than yourself that’s won this contest for the last four years.”
“I can’t wait to meet her. She sounds like my kind of people.”
“Oh you’ll meet her alright,” the man said as he looked at Ed’s arrows in the target. “I have a feeling the two of you will come head to head.”
The old pipe smoker’s words were true to form. Four rounds later found Jean sitting on the sidelines with everyone else that had been ruled out of the competition and Ed up at the firing line with Mayumi and her cousin Emmerson.
Emmerson was to fire first and once he did his arrow sank into the blue area meaning Ed had to hit red or above to remain in the running. When he did Emerson bowed out gracefully, but not without some good natured ribbing first.
“Damn fine show of luck Ed. I’ll see if I can redeem myself at the lodge later on.”
“At the lodge?”
“The Maple Lodge sponsors this contest and they give all the food and spirits you can drink to first, second and third place. I’ll see if you can match me pint for pint.”
“You have yourself a drinking buddy,” Ed said as he looked at the target. “Now let’s see if I can relieve missus Mayumi of that title.”
“That’s miss Mayumi,” She corrected with a wink. “I’m up for any game you’d like to play Edward.”
Ed lined up what would be his final shot with a flush on his face. It would seem that Mayumi played for keeps no matter what she was shooting for. Both she and her cousin were outgoing, spirited and witty, it was something Ed found himself drawn to. He was looking forward to dinner already.
Ed managed to hit the gold area, a feat that earned him nine points, but Mayumi would have to get the blue area or less for him to outscore her.
With the grace, ease and skill of a predator that’s cornered their prey, Mayumi drew back her bow and let her arrow fly. It too struck the gold area making her the reigning champion once again.
Mayumi stuck out her hand in a gesture of sportsmanship and Ed shook it with a smile. As soon as they lowered their weapons, two children raced up to them to pin on their ribbons. Blue for Mayumi, red for Ed and green for Emmerson.
“I still can’t believe I made it to the final round,” Ed said to Mayumi once the children scampered off, proud of themselves for completing their appointed tasks. There was muffled talk of rewards in the form of popcorn and lemonade.
“I can,” she replied as she slung her bow over her shoulder. “You have an inborn talent when it comes to weapons. What do you usually wield?”
Thinking hard and quick on the best way to describe the blade he usually turned his automail hand into Ed settled on sword.
“A sword and a spear. I’ve occasionally thrown a few of my friend’s knives but I’ve never used anything close to this bow in my hand.”
“Talent is talent my friend. I’m looking forward to seeing you at the lodge in a few hours.”
After she departed with Emmerson, Ed made his way over to Jean. He was surprised the man hadn’t come up to congratulate him as others had.
“That was pretty cool wasn’t it? It’s a damn good thing we arrived when we did or we would have missed this.”
“Glad you had fun, Ed.”
Noting his flat tone and dour expression Ed said, “Oh come on Jean, don’t be a spoilsport. You at least had fun shooting right? I know that isn’t the same as placing, but me doing that was just dumb luck no matter what Mayumi says.”
Jean shrugged, “She seemed rather fond of you.”
“I’m fond of her too,” Ed replied missing Jean’s sarcasm. “I can’t wait to have dinner with her and Emmerson at that Maple Lodge they were talking about. I bet a lot of the contestants and spectators will be there. I like this place, everyone is so laid back.”
“Mind if we skip dinner at that place? I think I saw a steakhouse I’d rather eat at.”
“Normally I wouldn’t mind,” Ed replied feeling more than a little disappointed Jean would even suggest it. The only thing that made sense to Ed was to think that Jean was unaware that the lodge feast was part of the contest. Going with that line of logic Ed continued with, “This whole lodge thing is a celebration and reward for the contestants. Second place has earned me all the food and spirits I can consume.”
“I heard about that Ed. They told me when I turned in my bow as they wished me luck next year.”
“Doesn't that sweeten the pot, even just a little?”
“Not really,” Jean replied as he took the bow off Ed’s shoulder and handed it to one of the attendants.
That wasn’t the response Ed was expecting or hoping for but he didn’t let that stop him. He was determined to cheer Jean up. He was convinced the man would have a good time at the Maple Lodge if he gave it a chance.
“How about I make you a deal. If you aren’t having a decent time after we eat and mingle for a bit we’ll take off and do something else. Deal?”
Jean agreed, even if it was reluctantly, and when Ed saw his long face he said, “We have two hours to kill and I could use a shower.”
“Okay,” Jean said as he gave Ed an odd look due the random statement.
“Wanna join me?”
At that invitation, Jean gave his first genuine smile of the day.
** Chapter 7 Reference