Winry scraped the last of the frosting from the bowl and daubed it onto the cake, spreading the white meringue gently over the golden-brown crust. Then she laid her icing knife aside and rotated the plate on which her creation rested to check it from all sides. A few thin spots wanted touching up; she attended to them swiftly and nodded, well-pleased. Mm-hm. That'll do.
She lowered the glass cover onto the plate and pushed the whole thing to the back of the counter. A golden cake was as much a Stilly Night tradition as the cornmeal dumplings her grandmother was mixing up by the stove, but they seldom bothered to make one for just the two of them. This year, however, the Elric brothers had blown in to share the holiday, and one unexpected treat surely deserved another.
Dropping her knife into the empty bowl, Winry carried it to the sink. A chill from the window met her there, sharp contrast to the warmth radiating from stove and oven. She turned the faucet and the hot water quickly breathed a thin film of condensation onto the glass. Rinsing the bowl under the tap, Winry squinted through the foggy pane at the horizon burning orange and gold between long grey lines of cloud. As the sun slipped from sight, the rose-tinted branches of the windbreak shuddered erratically until light and breeze failed together, leaving the trees as dark and still as an ink-painting on lavender paper. "The sun's down, Granny," Winry said, giving bowl and knife each a last wipe and dumped them into the drying rack. "Can we light the windows now?"
"No candles upstairs," her grandmother said as she placed another dumpling atop the simmering sausage-and-bean stew.
Winry brushed a stray lock of blond hair off her cheek, tucking it behind her ear. "Not even in my room?"
"Not even in your room." Pinako checked the flame beneath the pot, took another lump of dough between her floury palms and began rolling it into a ball. "House rules."
And when it's my house, Winry finished silently, I can make the rules. "All right," she conceded. "I'll set the table afterward."
Pinako shook her head. "No, the boys can do that. Share the meal, share the work."
"House rules!" Winry chanted, and Pinako looked over her shoulder to trade a grin with her granddaughter. Winry hung her towel on its hook, untied her apron and tossed it onto the coat tree by the back door. "I'll see if they want to help with the lights, too."
She danced into the dining room, where Ed and Al had taken over the table. They were writing some kind of complicated report, or series of reports, to be posted to Central after the holiday—third class, Ed had insisted, after Al had dissuaded him from mailing whatever-it-was postage due. The younger of the brothers looked up politely as Winry entered, his large gauntlets shielding his work from view. "Is it time to clear away?" he asked, his voice ringing incongruously sweet from the formidable plate armor that housed his soul.
"Soon," Winry answered. "Granny's just started the Stilly dumplings, but everything else is keeping warm. D'you want to help me light the windows?"
"Sure." Al shuffled his share of the papers together and picked them up. "Brother?"
Ed grunted and bent lower over the table, his nose almost touching his notebook. "Finish this first," he muttered, adding under his breath an uncomplimentary assessment of his military superiors that Winry chose not to acknowledge but couldn't honestly disagree with.
The phone had rung late that morning—right at the beginning of Central's workday—and Ed had argued with it for an hour, never quite loudly enough for Winry, in the kitchen separating eggs and measuring out orange extract, to hear what the Fullmetal Alchemist was being ordered to do, or where, or when. It was only after he'd stomped into the dining room to consult with Al about train schedules that she'd realized they would be leaving tomorrow. Her spirits had collapsed like a cooling cheesecake; she'd barely managed not to wail But it's Yoletide! and prove herself both spoiled brat and country bumpkin. No one in Amestris really believed anymore that an enterprise begun during the week between Stilly Night and New Year's was doomed to failure, but no one in Riesenbuhl ever started one then, either. Ed's assignments were dangerous enough without inviting bad luck. Unless they want him to fail, she thought uneasily.
But Al had added his papers to his brother's and was waiting for her, so Winry shrugged off her disquiet. "Okay," she said. "Do your best!"
Ed groaned and let his forehead hit the table with a thump, his left hand waving them feebly away. Winry chuckled, patted his shoulder encouragingly, and trotted off with Al following in her wake.
After a stop at the hall closet to retrieve the house's supply of battery-powered emergency lanterns, the two mounted the steps to the second floor. Al clanked toward the back of the house to do the guest quarters while Winry dealt with the bath and her own bedroom. The unnatural neatness that made it, too, feel like guest quarters had disappeared by now: Winry dodged a gaping suitcase and a derangement of tools to set a lamp on the northern windowsill, then hopped across her unmade bed to the eastern one. Parting the curtains, she peered for a moment into the deepening dusk.
Away downhill and up again, where the sloe-dark fields met the navy-blue sky, the Andersens' windows twinkled like quartz flakes in a fieldstone wall. They must be having quite a party, she thought. Granny had said Mrs. Andersen had said her son would be home on leave from the army for the Yole Days. Winry hadn't seen Ben since he'd enlisted two years ago; she wondered if she'd recognize him at the New Year's bonfire. I will if he comes in uniform—and if he doesn't, I bet even basic training couldn't make his ears lay flat.
She flicked the switch to turn on the lantern and pulled the curtains together behind it. Everyone who could visited family at Yoletide—Winry hadn't thought twice about raiding her own savings for trainfare when Garfiel offered her the holidays off. The railroad companies charged the earth for tickets, but the carriages were still jammed full. The final stragglers would arrive tonight, met by the lights burning in every window, a tradition older than memory: beacons for travelers on the longest night of the year, guiding the sons and daughters of Amestris safely home.
Or maybe just another country custom the rest of Amestris was forgetting. "Do people in Central light their houses for Stilly Night?" Winry asked Al as they dragged a side table in front of the glass doors to the upstairs porch.
"Oh, yes," he answered. "Not just the windows, either—they have strings of bulbs in all different colors and they hang them along the eaves and in the trees and criss-crossing back and forth across the streets." He carried a brass lamp to the table and Winry plugged it in. "It's really pretty."
"I'd like to see it someday," Winry said, trying to imagine the scene.
"Maybe next year, if we're in Central, you can come visit us," Al offered.
It was like him to invite her, Winry thought as she straightened, to act as if they could make plans for the future just like other people did. Normal people. "Mmm," she said. "I don't know if I'd want to leave Granny alone for Yoletide and you can't shift her from Riesenbuhl with a block and tackle these days."
Al shrugged, switching on the light, and Winry hoped he hadn't heard more than a polite excuse in her demurral. "I like it better here myself," he said. "Everybody wishes you a glad Yole in Central, but I'd rather hear 'Have a good Turning!' from you and Granny Pinako." He bowed creakily to her, like a knight out of a medieval romance, and Winry's heart lightened.
"A good Turning, then!" she said, bobbing a curtsey back. "C'mon, let's do the candles in the dining room. I think—" she cocked her head at the muffled noise of her grandmother and Ed sniping amiably at one another—"Granny's persuading your brother to set the table."
Al giggled, always a surprising sound emerging from so fearsome a figure, and they ran downstairs to join the others and lend a hand with the final preparations.
Pinako had sent Ed and his magnum opus packing and was bundling up the everyday checked tablecloth in order to lay the fancy damask one. Hurricane lamps burned cheerfully in the dining room casements; inspired, Winry fetched her mother's wedding candelabrum with its dangling prisms and set it in the center of the table. Ed sidled back into the room and volunteered to light the rest of the downstairs windows, but Pinako assigned him to help Al bring out the company china and ordered Winry to feed the dog ("We can't have Den underfoot begging all evening"). Al and Winry exchanged a look and their tasks as soon as her grandmother's back was turned; Ed winked at Winry and handed her a stack of plates.
Had Al ears to bend, they would have stuck out as far as Ben Andersen's when Pinako finished scolding him for filling the dog dish with Yoletide sausage-and-bean stew. He endured her tirade meekly, chirping yes, Granny and no, Granny in intermittent counterpoint to Den's eager gollops. Winry bit her lips to keep from laughing, while Ed clutched his middle and wheezed. Pinako finally shooed Al out of the kitchen so that she could ladle the stew—"what's left of it!"—into the big tureen, but called him back to bear it to the table.
Winry, meanwhile, collected the side dishes from the oven: maple-glazed parsnips, carrots in horseradish sauce, and a garlic-studded mashed-potato-and-cabbage pie. Ed hovered over each delicacy as it arrived in the dining room, sniffing appreciatively and trying to stick a flesh finger into the pie. Winry slapped his hand away. "Can't you wait?" she asked quellingly. "You'll burn yourself."
"Not if I'm quick," Ed replied, grinning and unquelled.
Winry snorted. Pinako, entering behind her, turned off the overhead light, making both teenagers blink; then she struck a match and lit the candelabrum. Subdued glimmers pooled like water on the china, while brighter sparks danced along the silver. Al brought the ottoman from the parlor so that his knees wouldn't scrape the underside of the table when he sat, and placed himself on Ed's right; Winry settled opposite him on her grandmother's left beside the kitchen door. Pinako poured everyone a glass of cider and cleared her throat.
"Well, here we all are," she said. "Now that you three are out making your ways in the world, that's a rare thing. Enjoy it." She raised her glass. "Here's to a good Turning!"
"A good Turning!" they chorused and clinked their glasses together. Al set his gently down as Pinako, Ed and Winry drained theirs, then poured his cider into Ed's cup while Pinako refilled Winry's and her own. Ed, meanwhile, reached immediately for the ladle and began dishing himself a generous helping of stew, snagging four of the Stilly dumplings as well.
"Help yourself, Ed," Pinako said dryly.
Ed looked at her, brows up in well-faked astonishment, and held the bowl out to her as if he'd intended to do so from the first. "Pass me yours, please, Granny?" he asked, his voice dripping with courtesy. Al and Winry caught each other's gaze again and stifled chuckles. Pinako raised her own eyebrows right back at Ed and silently traded bowls with him.
Despite the candlelight and the holiday specialties, the meal was not so different from any they'd shared over the past two days. Ed filled and refilled his plate, consuming second and third helpings while Pinako and Winry were still finishing their first. It was no use warning him to pace himself or to leave room for dessert. More than ever, Winry reflected, it seemed plausible that the accident that had deprived him of his left leg had somehow hollowed out his right.
His younger brother's needs were less easily satisfied. Ed's mouth being full, Winry and her grandmother plied Al with conversation, though they had long since run out of news to swap: Pinako wasn't much for gossip and the Elrics were as closemouthed as ever about their research. (What kind of "research" stripped the gearing of an automail knee Winry wasn't sure she wanted to hear about, anyway.) She kicked herself for not rationing her own tales of Rush Valley more carefully, but she encouraged Al to describe Central's Yoletide light displays again and that led to a discussion of holiday customs new and old. Pinako had anecdotes from her childhood to contribute and they soon fell to debating the origin and meaning of first footing at New Year's or splashing people with water on Dyngus Day. Al leaned forward, speaking quickly, not even noticing how the table shook when he brought his palm down to make a point, and Winry rubbed her hands smugly together in her lap.
They had not yet exhausted the topic when it came time to clear the table for dessert. Al and Pinako, still arguing whether the Feast of Fools had any connection to the old lunar calendar, gathered up dishes and utensils. Ed leaned back in his chair, eyes half-lidded as if the meal had drained rather than filled him. Winry tweaked his braid when she passed by with the dessert plates; he tilted his head to give her a sarcastic look in reply. "Did you make a golden cake?" he asked.
"What do you think?" Winry parried, and whisked away before he could respond.
She loitered in the kitchen until the rest of the party had resumed their seats, then carried the cake into the dining room and presented it with a flourish. Al applauded and Pinako, pouring tea, paused to nod approval, while Ed sat up abruptly, as if finding his second wind in answer to this new challenge. Winry loaded a generous slice onto his plate. Scooping up a dollop of frosting, he licked it cautiously off his fork.
"Hey, Winry, this is good!" he exclaimed, sounding surprised. Winry had given up being insulted by this, since Ed never seemed to realize that it might seem insulting. "What is it?"
"It's a Creatan meringue," she explained. "I needed something to use up all the egg whites left over from making the cake and I was tired of macaroons. I found this in my mother's recipe box." She got it from your mother, I thought. The recipes were annotated as precisely as the medical books in the bookcase upstairs—"Dr. Stevens adv. 3 g. sufficit" in the same copperplate hand as "Trisha says don't overbeat eggs!" But if Ed didn't remember the meringue, maybe his mother had simply offered hers some advice. "I'm glad you find it edible," Winry said dryly, watching him scrape all the frosting from the top of his slice and shovel it into his mouth.
Ed swallowed. "Your cooking's always edible," he said. "But this—this is good." He pushed the cake over and separated the layers so that he could extract more of the meringue.
Winry beamed, looking down at the cake plate to hide the extent of her pleasure. Ed's bluntness, however irritating, did ensure that his compliments always meant something. She cut another slice and handed it to Al. "I baked the charms in this year," she said. "You can take your chance with everybody else, Al."
"Thank you, Winry," Al said, "but Ed can have mine."
"Only after you've poked a fork through it and made sure there's nothing in there for me to break a tooth on," Ed put in swiftly. He stabbed his own piece for emphasis.
"When did you ever break a tooth on a Yole-charm, Ed?" Pinako inquired as she accepted her portion of cake from Winry.
"I haven't ... yet," he answered darkly. "Ha!" He dug out a small waxed-paper envelope, opened it, and triumphantly held up a silver key. "The key to knowledge! We'll have this stupid assignment finished in no time, Al!"
"And you'll probably learn a lot from it, too," Al returned, deadpan, and Ed reached out to whack him on the arm, automail meeting armor with a loud clang. Winry laughed and took a careful bite of her own slice.
She had tried to distribute the charms evenly in the top layer and was pleased to find she'd succeeded, mostly. In her own piece she found the six-cen coin, for riches—"I know that's true; I wrote your bill up this morning, Ed!"—but Pinako pulled out both the wedding ring and the bachelor's button—"Does that mean you're going to get married again, Granny? Or not?" "It means that all this fortune-telling is superstitious silliness, child"—which left Al, investigating his slice with the care of a mountain-climber testing the stability of a snow-field, to open the paper containing the crown. "I get to be Yole King!" he exclaimed.
Winry's hands flew to her mouth. "I knew I'd forgotten something!" she said. "I'm sorry, Al. I didn't make a crown for you to wear ... "
"That's easily mended." Pinako crossed to the secretary in the corner and withdrew some sheets of yellow construction paper, which she cut and pasted into a crenelated circlet. Struck by an idea of her own, Winry dashed into the kitchen and pawed through the junk drawer until she found several small magnets.
"Here, Granny," she said, taking the crown and setting it on Al's helmet, then fixing it in place with the magnets. "That'll keep it from falling off!"
"Thanks, Winry," Al said.
"You're welcome, your majesty," she replied with a bow. "What are your commands?"
"Don't get carried away," Ed grunted, sliding his brother's plate across the table and scraping off half its frosting at once.
"Hmm," Al said, lifting a finger to his chin in an obviously faked moment of intense concentration. "I think my brother should sing for us."
Ed choked, Pinako chuckled and Winry laughed outright. Ed glared at his brother. "I am not going to sing," he said.
"You know the rules, Ed," Winry chided him between giggles. He turned his glare on her, but she could almost feel it bouncing off. "Al's the Yole King; he's in charge."
"I'll make it easy on you, I promise," Al said earnestly. "How about the wassail bowl song?"
That Ed didn't succumb to apoplexy right then and there Winry counted as one of the graces of the season; that he actually sang, or at least mumbled, his way to the end of the first verse before everyone took pity on him and joined in had to be one of its miracles. Al's subsequent commands were far less loaded: Pinako was required to tell jokes ("Clean ones, Granny!"); Den was put through her limited repertoire of tricks; and Winry was taxed to report her most embarrassing cooking mishaps (automail mishaps having been declared off-limits on the grounds of patient confidentiality). Winry laughed until her over-full belly ached. It was good to be happy. She'd bank this memory against the chilly hours of worry that would follow once the Elric brothers were out of her sight.
Pinako folded her napkin on her plate. "Well," she said, "shall we continue this around the fireplace?"
"Over popcorn, Granny?" Al asked eagerly.
"I don't see why not, as long as we can find the basket." Pinako frowned. "The last time I saw it, it was in the back of the hall closet, I think."
"I'll help you look," said Al.
Winry glanced at Ed, puzzled not to hear him immediately second this plan. Surely dinner alone hadn't stuffed him? He was sucking on his fork, regarding Al with a tilt to his brows and a set to his jaw that was almost a scowl. Was he tired? In pain? He never admitted to either when it mattered—only if he needed an excuse to shirk some petty chore, like ... "Why don't you and I clear the table, Ed?" she asked cunningly.
His attention jumped to her, but Al broke in before he could answer. "That's a good idea. You help Winry with the dishes, Brother, and Granny and I will look for the popcorn basket."
Ed sat up, gripping his fork like a dagger, but before he could protest, Al added complacently, "Remember, I'm the Yole King. What I say, goes."
Ed's mouth snapped shut into another almost-frown; then he slumped forward so that his blond sidelocks hid his face. "Yeah, yeah, whatever you say ... your majesty."
He began piling their plates noisily together. Winry's concern for him abruptly fled; shrieking, she yanked the stack out of his grasp. "That's my mother's bone china, Ed, not restaurant stoneware! Be careful!"
"See? My help's not wanted," Ed growled, but Al had turned to pick up the ottoman and could pretend not to hear. Pinako handed Ed a teacup with an enough-of-your-nonsense sniff. He sighed gustily, collected the other cups with exaggerated care, and followed Winry into the kitchen.
For all the help he gave her there, however, he might as well have remained in the dining room. He laid claim at once to the tea towel, leaving her the heavy labor at the sink, and dried the dishes so slowly she wished she hadn't made such a big deal of their delicacy. "You don't have to polish them, Ed," she said. "Just dry is fine."
"Right. Whatever," he answered, plunking the plate he was holding onto the kitchen table and grabbing another from the rack with his left hand.
Winry winced and turned away, biting back another scold. She tried matching his pace instead, but it was hopeless: for every dish he took from the drying rack, she had three rinsed and ready to replace it. "Clear me some space, Ed, can't you?" she asked, impatience sharpening her tone. "I don't have anywhere to put the bowls."
"I see that," he snapped back. "Just give me a second."
She gritted her teeth. I will not nag, I will not nag, I will not nag. "I'll give you ten," she said evenly. And then I'll hit you with the stewpot.
Ed said nothing, but began attending to the cups with hasty swipes of his towel. Winry rolled her eyes and tucked the clean bowls into the newly-freed space. What's bothering him? It couldn't be the task itself—he'd have rushed through it, helter-skelter and slapdash, nagging her to pick up the pace. Was he still embarrassed about having sung? He had been rather ominously quiet ever since, but she considered his abstracted, I'm-not-concentrating-on-my-hands air and dismissed that possibility, too. Whatever was percolating in his head wasn't making him self-conscious. Maybe an inspiration was brewing. Winry could understand that: some mornings she dressed in fits and starts or brushed her teeth endlessly while her brain pondered an exciting new machine. But in that case, wouldn't Ed be manic, not grumpy? She usually was ...
Winry balanced the casserole dishes upside-down over the dessert plates and swept all the knives, forks and spoons together into the sink. The crash produced a satisfying jump from Ed and, after a few seconds, the removal of the larger casserole from the rack. The rest of the china sat undisturbed while Winry scrubbed, rinsed and dried the silverware herself. He can dawdle all he wants, she thought, savagely indifferent. I'll just eat his share of the popcorn.
Pulling the plug on the sink, she turned to see Ed staring off into space, one hand in the gingerbread jar and his cheeks pouched like a squirrel's. Her indifference evaporated. "For heaven's sake, Ed!" she demanded. "What's wrong with you?"
"Nothing," he answered, gulping down his mouthful.
"It's not nothing—something's been eating you since dessert," Winry insisted, then grimaced as that sentence replayed itself in her ear. A smile ghosted across Ed's face, emphasizing his previous lack of good humor, and Winry took a shot in the dark. "Don't tell me you're jealous that Al got the crown?"
Yet she'd come near the truth; she could hear it in his voice. Edward Elric was good at keeping secrets, but only from those who'd misuse or be hurt by them. So she waited, filling the silence between them with patience, and he finally mumbled, "I was just—it's stupid—"
"What is?" she asked.
"Something I read once. About the Yole King." He took another bite of gingerbread but went on speaking through it. "Stupid stuff, about how, way back when, he might've been a human sacrifice, for a good year or something." He swallowed. "That's why you give him whatever he wants for a week: because a human sacrifice is precious." Ed all but spat the word, spraying crumbs, and wiped his lips roughly on his sleeve.
Winry felt a shiver crawl up her back. Granny had said over dinner that when she was young, people used to throw a straw man onto the New Year's bonfire and predict good or bad luck depending on how it burned. Twaddle, Pinako had opined, her mouth as prim as Ed's was angry. But what if, once upon a time, it had been a real man? A—a human sacrifice? That's why you give him whatever he wants for a week: because he's going to die. She crossed her arms over her chest, ignoring the damp patches her hands made on her sweater. Because he has so little time ...
"Hey," Ed said, all the ire gone from his voice. "Winry?" He waved a cookie-filled hand across her line of vision. "It's probably all made up; I don't know why I let it bother me." He watched her uncertainly; as she pushed herself away from the sink, Winry wondered what her face had been doing while she was thinking.
So little time ...
"It's all right," she said, forcing her lips into a smile. "At least the worst thing Al asked you to do was sing." Ed frowned and Winry forged on with the joke, wagging a finger at him. "Just be grateful I didn't find the crown in my slice ... "
His ears all but pricked up like Den's at the sound of a challenge. Winry's face stopped fighting her; her smile broadened as Ed squared his shoulders and scoffed, "You as Yole Queen? I'm shaking in my boots."
"As well you should," she answered, looking down her nose at him. He rose, surely unconsciously, onto the balls of his feet to meet her gaze, and she giggled, spoiling the majestic mien she'd been attempting.
He smirked at her as if he'd scored a point, then pressed his notional advantage. "And what would you ask me to do, huh?"
To that question, there were answers and answers. Winry chose one that only made her skin prickle gently with blood-warmth. "I'd ask you to stay till New Year's."
Ed's heels hit the floor as he looked away from her, a faint flush spreading across his own cheeks. He shook his head and Winry's pulse began to pound audibly in her ears. She hoped he wasn't going to make the usual excuses. She knew them all by heart—could mouth the whole tired litany in order as he recited it. Who did he think he was fooling? Why didn't he just say it straight out? I have more important things to do ...
A clatter of footsteps announced Al well before he ducked under the lintel and stopped short, his paper-crowned head swiveling from Ed to Winry. "We found the popcorn basket," he said. "Um, did you finish the dishes? What's going on?"
... and time is running out.
"Ed's snitching gingerbread instead of helping me like you told him to," Winry said, putting her hands on her hips.
Ed's jaw dropped. He raised his hands in protest and then stared at them, as if surprised to discover them clutching cookies. Al sighed. "Brother," he said, "if you're going to steal sweets, you should at least share them."
Ed rolled his eyes. "Fine," he grumbled. "Here."
He tossed his left-hand cookie to Winry, who caught it against her shirt and ostentatiously brushed herself clean before taking a bite. "Thank you very much, Ed," she caroled.
Ed made indistinct, probably insulting noises around his own mouthful of cookie. "Are we having popcorn now?" he asked Al after he'd cleared his mouth.
"Granny Pinako's building up the fire," Al answered, rubbing his hands together in what Winry had come to recognize as a mildly nervous gesture. "I was wondering ... would you two want to go outside and count houses first, like we used to?" He cocked his head to one side, regarding them hopefully.
Counting houses wasn't an official Yole tradition, just something they'd always done, at first with their parents and later by themselves. Ed and Al had turned the occasion into a contest—who could pick out the most houses or the farthest one or name them all correctly?—but Winry had drawn the line at keeping score from year to year. Lately, though, she hadn't bothered to observe the custom: Granny complained that her old bones disliked the chill and Winry had found that standing in the dark alone wasn't any fun. But with the brothers here again, just like old times ... "I'd love to!" she exclaimed, stuffing the rest of her cookie into her mouth and skipping over to the coat tree to dig out her winter jacket. "Lemme ge' m'coat!"
"Brother?" Al asked, turning to Ed.
Winry watched them out of the corner of her eye as she pulled her scarf from her coat-sleeve. Ed's feet remained flat on the floor, she noticed, when he tilted his head back to look his younger brother in the eye. "Sure," he said; then his face blazed into a grin. "Bet you I count more this year."
"Bet you don't," Al replied at once and Winry's lips twitched. Some things just don't change ...
"Winry!" Pinako called from the parlor. "Can you bring the popping corn from the pantry?"
Winry dashed back through the kitchen and ducked under Al's arm. "In a minute, Granny!" she yelled. "We're going outside to count houses!"
"Good!" her grandmother answered with inexplicable vehemence. "Take the dog out with you!"
With a scrabble of claws, Den bolted between Al's legs and skidded across the linoleum to the kitchen door, trailing unmistakable whiffs of the result of feeding a dog sausage-and-bean stew. "Oh, Den!" Winry exclaimed, pinching her nose shut. "Phew!"
Ed made a dive for the door, yanking it wide to let a breath of fresh cold air in and the odiferous animal out. "'Oh, Den?'" he repeated. "I think you're blaming another one of the victims there, Winry." He glared over his shoulder at Al, who mimed complete innocence with a facility astonishing in a suit of armor. Then again, Winry thought, her breath catching between a chuckle and a sigh, he can't smell it, can he?
They followed the dog outside as soon as Ed and Winry had shrugged on their coats. Den ran to meet them at the foot of the steps, cavorting around Al and dodging his laughing attempts to seize her collar; then she bolted off nose-down into the darkness to crash around in the windbreak. The brothers likewise surged off across the yard toward the wall dividing it from the next-door sheepfold. Within moments they had completely outdistanced Winry, whose eyes adjusted but slowly to the night's erratic brilliance. A first-quarter moon was westering into the woolpack heaped on the horizon; elsewhere the stars sketched familiar pictures, mirroring above what passed below: two bright-eyed dogs hunting a hare crouched forever just beyond reach. The electric lamps in the upstairs windows made a brave show, far braver than the thin candle-flickers at ground level, but neither did much to illuminate Winry's path. She picked her way tentatively across the lawn, stepping over sticks that weren't there and tripping on hollows that were. "Wait up!" she called crossly.
Only Den answered her summons, reemerging from the brush to walk at her heels, panting. Al and Ed marched on, oblivious; Winry cursed them under her breath and struggled to catch up.
"—three, four, five—"
"How d'you make five already?"
The brothers were arguing, of course, each trying to steal a march on the other in the house-count. Winry's irritation went wry; she'd probably have to umpire. Oh, yes ... just like old times ...
"The Andersens, the Wrights, the Bolts—" Al enumerated as Winry overtook him.
"The Bolts?" Ed scoffed. "You can't see their house from here. The hill gets in the way."
"I can too. The attic windows show above the top."
"No, they don't. You just think you can see them because you know they're there."
"I am not—"
Winry shouldered between them. "You two!" she said preemptively, because it sounded as if Al were about to bring up the forty centimeters of height he had on Ed at the moment, and the resulting explosion wouldn't be conducive to holiday harmony. "Don't argue—just count."
"Al's cheating!" Ed declared indignantly.
"I am not!" protested Al. "Tell him, Winry!"
Winry grabbed Al's left hand and Ed's right, effectively silencing their owners, and towed the brothers all the way to the wall before either boy's gloved fingers responded to her grasp. Both hands closed gingerly on hers as she climbed the stile, white kid over steel as gentle as brown leather over ... nothing. Their hesitancy mocked her fierce careless grip, but Winry refused to let go. Tenderly and secretly she ran a thumb across Ed's knuckles, then looked up at Al.
His panache was bobbing in the breeze, an oddly soft curve above the spiked outlines of spaulders and helm. In the eye-sockets of his visor the faint radiance of his soul shone star-bright in the darkness—no, candle-bright, twin lamps to light the traveler home. Winry turned away and blinked the blurred twinkles of the Wrights' windows steady again. Soon, she prayed. Please, let it be soon.
Overhead, the stars wheeled slowly toward the dawn of the year's shortest day.