Stupid idiot that you are, you didn't expect it to be so difficult. You let your hair hang loose for the two or three days the old man said it would take to have a false arm made, but at the back of your mind you were really still expecting Winry to come tromping through the door with her hair pulled back for business under that red kerchief of hers, wielding a lug wrench and grumbling about your miserable treatment of her precious masterpieces.
It didn't really sink in when you saw the thing, all clumsy dangling wood and leather straps, like the arm of a marionette in a kids' puppet show. The craftsman who made it strapped it against the stump of your shoulder, adjusted the buckles that held it and the belts that chafed tight across your chest; he asked you where it needed padding and you told him, puzzled and annoyed, detached from reality. Waiting for them to stop teasing and bring out your real arm. Not this pathetic joke.
You wore it back to the old man's house—not your home, you refuse to dignify it with that title—sitting next to him in the hired carriage. The loosely jointed elbow slapped rhythmically against your side with every step the horses took. Finally you resettled it in your lap and held it there, staring out the window the whole time.
It was after you climbed up the stairs and reached for the doorknob to the room where you sleep, right-handed as usual, and the damn thing just hung there like some kind of useless cancerous growth. That was when it hit you at last.
No automail. No moving fingers, no smoothly swiveling joints and sparking wires, no sockets to shove connectors into with an agonizing electrosensory shock. No Winry to haul her suitcase of spare parts off the train and launch into her latest lecture. Just this heavy, unwieldy thing, like having a log of firewood attached to your shoulder.
You swore viciously, and kicked the wall with your stockinged foot so hard that you went hopping and cussing down the hall and nearly tripped over the carpet runner. That night you took it off and threw it across the room in a fit of temper before you went to sleep. It hit the wall with an dull unsatisfying thunk and slid to the floor. Nothing but a goddamn glorified table leg. It didn't even dent it.
You would almost give your other arm for the privilege of lying sprawled across a sofa listening to her familiar absorbed muttering as she dug some pointy unidentifiable tool or another around in the bowels of your automail. For that matter, she would probably squeal for joy at the challenge of making you another damn prosthesis.
If you took the time to let yourself think about it, you would realize how much you missed her; not just her skill with a screwdriver and a wrench, but her bubbly laugh, and the faint smell of oil and hot electronics that always hung around her, and the way her fingers threaded gently through your hair when she braided it. And once that locked door opens, everything else will come spilling out. Granny Pinako with her no-nonsense attitude and wrinkly worldly-wise grin. Damn pigheaded Colonel Bastard and the warm, solid weight of his hand on your shoulder, those few times he decided to let slip something as human as a compliment. Gracia Hughes's apple pies, and Elysia's endless guileless questions. Al.
Oh, god. Al, who may or may not be whole or human or even alive.
So, rather than let yourself think about things and people you couldn't touch even with both arms, you throw yourself with single-minded fiery determination into plans for learning to work around the stupid prosthesis. You've always been good at solving problems. You lived one-armed for the months it took to have your automail fitted and installed and tuned into working order. How hard can this be?
Your first challenge comes when you get out of bed the next morning. The arm itself was designed to be put on one-handed; you grab it out of the corner where it fell the night before and squirm into the harness, cinching the buckles to a comfortable fit. Then you look in the mirror.
Your hair is still hanging loose around your face.
This is easy. A good starting point. Braids are out of the question for now, of course, but you can at least get the damn stuff out of your eyes. It only takes a minute to sneak into the washroom and swipe one of the thin strips of leather the old man uses to tie back his hair. You can do this.
Facing yourself in the mirror again, you comb your hair and pull it into a bunch at the nape of your neck, one-handed, the leather tie held in your teeth for when you'll need it. Easy enough so far. You give your hair a twist to keep it bunched, and let go, reaching around front to spit the tie into your hand.
Your hair immediately fans out across your back. You grumble briefly and bunch it again, this time holding it with thumb and first finger while you stretch with pinky and ring finger to grab for the tie. It's too far. You curse your square sturdy hand, good for punching but never meant for fine motor control, and drape the tie across your shoulder where you can reach it, then try again.
All right, now you've got a bunch of hair and a leather tie in your hand. You mess around with various finger configurations for a minute or two, trying to loop the tie around your hair, dropping more and more strands of hair and finally the tie itself.
Well, great. It would be time for Plan B now, except you haven't thought of one.
After a few minutes of mental debate, you have an idea. This time you grip the end of the tie in your teeth before you drape it over your shoulder. When the hair is bunched, you grab the free end of the tie and manage to get it under your hair, then catch up the other end out of your teeth. It's not until you start trying to tie a knot one-handed that you drop the whole thing.
Okay. The hair was actually in the tie for a few seconds. This is progress.
You still mutter a few choice epithets as you bend to pick up the tie.
The tie-in-teeth method works the best, you discover after some more experimentation, but it's still practically useless. You can't get the damn thing to knot tight enough to hold your hair. It all falls out as soon as you let go.
Half an hour later, you've moved through both simple frustration and wondering heatedly if it would be easier to handle a pair of scissors one-handed, and are screaming bad-tempered abuse at the mirror when the old man comes upstairs to see what all the commotion is about. You shut up instantly when you see him watching you with an amused little smile on his ugly mug. He stands silently in the doorway as you snatch up the fallen tie for the hundredth time and start over, grumbling poisonously to yourself. You're desperate to not look the fool in front of that idiot. Miracle of miracles; this time you actually manage to get something like a knot tied, with most of your hair inside it, more or less. For a second, you feel like cheering.
"You'll never get invited to tea with the Queen looking like that," he comments, with that damn hint of a laugh in his slimeball voice, and you whirl toward him with murder in your eyes, away from the reflection of yourself and your stupid ugly useless lopsided ponytail and the messy loops of hair hanging out of it down your neck.
"I wouldn't be so cack-handed if you got me an arm that wasn't a piece of shit!" you yell, grabbing the thing by the wrist and shaking it at him. when you let go, it falls limp against your side again. It's the last straw, and you whirl and kick the bed frame with one booted foot in sheer frustration. The frame makes an ominous cracking noise. "Why isn't there one good automail mechanic in this hellhole world?"
"Without a serious study of the diverging paths of mechanical invention on both sides of the Gate, that question is unanswerable," he says, calm and blank-faced as a stone like always, damn him. "However, the fact remains that automail, as well as alchemy, does not exist on this plane. Therefore I suggest you learn to deal with their losses like an adult, instead of breaking my furniture."
He walks off, and you're left staring at the empty doorframe with all the wind suddenly out of your sails, hating the realization that the old bastard is right.
No alchemy. No automail. No Winry. No choice.
You take a deep breath, let it out slowly, and pick up the tie.
He's sitting at the kitchen table sipping a cup of tea and reading the post when you come down the stairs with a sharp-edged triumphant grin on your face, two hours later. He glances up from the daily news long enough to raise an eyebrow at the back of your head.
You knotted two ties together, figured out gradually how to loop them around multiple times before knotting the stupid thing, got better at keeping random locks of hair from escaping. The final result is a little lopsided still, a little off to one side, but your hair is out of your face at last, and the knot is firm. It's not a perfect ponytail by any standard, but it'll do for now.
It may be just a little victory, and it took more work than you ever imagined, but you did it. You've proven to yourself—and damn his opinion anyway—that you can relearn the skills that you lost along with your arm. The rest is just going to be a matter of grit and inventiveness and patience.
As long as it doesn't drive you stark raving mad, you might even enjoy it a little. It's good to have a challenge, a distraction, now that the quest that was a leech draining at your soul for five years is over and done. At the very least, in this world empty of the exhilarating blue explosions of alchemy, it'll keep your mind from turning as wooden as your arm.
You sit across the table from him and pull the paper from under his nose, swiping half of it before handing back what's left. He ignores your deliberate attempt to start a fight, as usual, and pours you a cup of tea, pushing it across the table with the hint of a smile.
The tea is hot and sweet and not quite scalding in your throat, and you've got an entire life just waiting to be relearned.
"Good morning," you say, and for once, it almost is.