"...and here's Nelly and her mother," she was saying from her seat on the floor, tracing the tip of her finger over the waxy surface of the aging photograph. "Remember when their cow won first place at the summer fair?"
Sprawled on the sofa, he craned his neck to look over Winry's shoulder at the battered old album. Fading pieces of their shared past were tucked carefully away within its pages, glued in place with careful precision. Trust a mechanic to set her photos at neat right angles, efficiently labeled with names and dates.
"Oh, look, it's Michael from down the valley!" she exclaimed, turning a page with a heavy rustle and pointing to the face of a cheerfully smiling boy, perhaps ten or eleven years old with a thatch of brown hair. Edward frowned.
"Don't remember him," he said, puzzled. "How'd we know him?"
Winry's smile was bright with mischief at the memory. "Oh, Granny used to buy apples from his family's orchards. I don't know if you ever met him." She laughed. "I had such a crush on him for a while. I used to beg Granny to make pie so that we would run out of apples faster."
When Ed didn't laugh, she tilted her head back to give him a frown. "What?"
"Nothing," Edward muttered, glaring at the sofa cushions. "You liked that kid?" he added when she wouldn't stop frowning expectantly at him.
Winry snorted, shifting slightly for a better look at him as she leaned against the couch. "Oh, for heaven's sake, Ed. It was a childhood crush. Don't tell me you never had any."
"Not really," Edward said, and she threw up her hands in exasperation.
"Honestly, Ed! You're hopeless," she said, and went back to her trek through the past, murmuring names aloud as she leafed through page after page.
He waited until she was absorbed again before adding, too softly for her to hear and turn to see his reluctant blush, "Just you."
A lot of idle chattering went on between Winry and her grandmother while they worked on automail, and the projects and topics varied daily. Today's project was finishing the casing on a commissioned leg; the topic of conversation was families.
"I bet Al will have plenty of kids," Pinako said, tightening a screw and grinning. "He'd be tickled to have a tribe to play with."
"With half a dozen cats on top of that," Winry added with a giggle. "He's going to have to find quite the wife."
The conversation paused as she passed the soldering torch to Pinako, careful not to knock anything off of the cluttered worktable they shared.
"And you? What are your plans, Winry?"
Winry laughed incredulously. "Plans? I'm only fifteen, Granny."
"Not too young to start thinking about your future," Pinako said, shrugging. Winry snorted and shoved her hair out of her way as she leaned in close to check the alignment on two plates before bolting them down.
"Well...I'd like kids someday, I suppose. I always figured I'd live here when I grew up, but I'd like to do some traveling first, before I settle down. After that..." She thought a moment, fishing for the right bolt in a slightly rusted can of mixed odds and ends. "One child. Maybe two. At least one girl, if it was up to me, though I guess I'll have to take what I get, huh?"
Pinako's answer was an affirmative grunt; she had several bolts held between her teeth. They worked in silence for a few moments, and then Pinako gave the last nut in the row a quick tightening and reached for the torch again.
"And Ed?" she asked, and Winry dropped the can of screws she'd just picked up.
"Sorry!" she sputtered, dropping to her knees to grab for them as they scattered across the floor.
Pinako made an annoyed little noise and went to help her. "Careful, child! We'll be finding those under the counters for weeks!" She sighed and dropped a handful of screws into the can Winry held out. "As I was saying, where do you think Ed will end up?"
"Oh," Winry said, the light dawning. "I don't know," she shrugged. "Ed'll probably never stop wandering. If he does...maybe a house in Central? Then he could be right by the libraries."
"No family?" Pinako asked, raising an eyebrow.
"Ugh, how many screws can fit in one can?" Winry muttered, still gathering up the mess. "What a nuisance. Where did you find these ones with the funny heads, anyway, Granny? I don't think I've seen this type before."
The conversation turned to mechanics, saving Winry the trouble of puzzling out why it was so hard to imagine Edward with a family. Perhaps it was the problem of imagining a time when she and Pinako would not be the only girls in his life.
At fifteen, the idea of becoming a permanent part of that family hadn't occurred. It would come, in time.
Aquroya as Edward remembered it was a bustling city, bright with promise, like colorful wallpaper over the rotting walls of an aging house. Seven years later, he stepped off the train out of curiosity, and regretted it the moment he saw the empty skeleton streets, built up relentlessly over the rising water with a kind of stubborn desperation by inhabitants too tied to their vanishing home to leave.
Floating junk dredged up by the currents out of hundreds of abandoned homes swirled in the water beneath them as they passed over the rickety wooden paths, nailed between what had once been the highest spires of the island city.
Winry stopped once, to kneel at the edge and stretch down to rescue a water-bloated doll, whose head was knocking rhythmically against a wooden piling with the soft lapping of the water that cradled it.
When she held it out to him, he pressed his palms together and touched it without being asked, and the water and filth rose from it in a cloud of dirty steam.
Winry shuddered, holding it close and looking out over the silent tangle of waterlogged arches and towers. 'It really is a dead city, isn't it? Or dying, at least. It's...tragic.'
'I don't see the point in making a fuss now,' Ed said with a shrug. 'I've seen cities that were destroyed in a night. They've known this was coming for years. Haven't they had time to get used to the idea?'
His traveling companion's eyes were dark with memory. 'That's odd, coming from you,' Winry said quietly. 'You of all people should know what it's like to watch what you love slipping away.'
Ed started to answer, hesitated, then fell silent. The two of them gazed out across the water for a brief eternity, and then Winry felt his human hand slip into hers.
He said nothing, but he didn't have to. They stood there together, two orphans in the bosom of a dying mother, and watched the sun sink past the bloody horizon.
He was not the one who heard the weak, frantic whimpering from the bushes while they were playing in the woods. That was Nelly, with her ears tuned to animals' distress after years of living on a farm.
He was not the one who ran through the underbrush, crying out for their parents in a torn and terrified voice. That was her, with her hair stuck wet to her face with tears and her hands scratched bloody from shoving brambles aside.
He was not the one who sat waiting for help and holding the bleeding dog's head in his lap, stroking its ears and murmuring to it in a soft sing-song voice. That was Alphonse, with his natural talent for comforting others in their pain, whether they were two- or four-legged friends.
He was not the one who pried apart the cruel teeth of the bear trap, broad hands as steady and skilled with the tools as they had ever been at the operating table. That was her father, telling her to stand back and sighing with relief as the awful thing fell to pieces.
He was not the one who gently pulled aside a fold of furry skin to slip in the needle that made the pain retreat. That was her mother, gently sponging away the clotted blood and filth and bundling what was left of the leg in soft white bandages.
He was not the one who lifted the unconscious animal onto an old doubled-up sheet and carried it home with the same care he would have given to one of his children. That was Nelly's father, who knew and respected the worth of life, both animal and human.
And he was not the one who trotted halfway across Risenburg to shout righteous abuse at a careless trapper twice her height and half her age, who shrank back into his house with frightened promises to never use those outdated torture machines again. That was her granny, patting the sleeping dog's head and already making plans for a special automail leg.
But when all had gone quiet that night and she was curled in a tiny miserable ball next to her poor broken pet as it slept under the weight of the drugs in a basket next to the stove, it was Edward who snuck out of the house and across the road in the pale blue moonlight to sit next to her and let her soak his shirt with her tears. And she would never forget how freely he had given her that, the only thing he had to give.
Will she ever get used to these high echoing arches, and the way they catch the sound of her footsteps on the marble floor and toss them back down to her, muffled on the way by the rows upon rows of shelved books stretching floor to ceiling and perfuming the air with the smell of aging paper and binding glue? Winry always feels small in the Central Library, a thin-skinned caterpillar inching across the floor of a cathedral, erected to honor saints whose names she never learned. She frowns uneasily as she walks among the banks of regimented shelves. It's a relief when she reaches one of the two places here that she considers familiar and friendly.
The other is, of course, the section on mechanics, tucked at the back under a balcony that shields her from the massive height of the ceiling. She can burrow through those books for hours, sitting contentedly upside down and backwards in a library armchair with her ankles propped on the backrest and her hair cascading over the edge of the seat cushion to pool on the floor, a tome held overhead in both hands to rain down the latest theories and designs on her like blessings.
This row is larger, and more spacious, with its own proper reading nook instead of just a few old armchairs left in the rows between the shelves. It takes her a moment to find him; he's got mercurial habits, following a trail through the information on these shelves until there are books scattered haphazard across the floor in heaps, pages fanned out to show the concentric geometric lines of arrays. One never knows where he's going to end up by evening. She once found him perched on a ladder twenty feet above her head, flipping his way through a lapful of books too heavy to bother carrying down to the floor. She didn't notice him at all until he wadded up a blank page from the little book where he'd been scribbling notes and threw it at her. It missed, hitting the floor several feet away, and as she was looking around in confusion he tried throwing the notebook instead, which bounced off her head with an explosion of stars. Her subsequent explosion of temper required two librarians to restrain her and convince Edward it was safe to come down again.
Tonight her search ends at a heap of books in the corner where two shelves meet. He's asleep there, sprawled half-buried among the pages, his hair fanning softly across the thick leather tome that he's using as an impromptu pillow. She smiles and kneels to brush a few strands of hair out of his mouth. If she is a caterpillar in this temple of ancients, she thinks, then he's a golden-winged moth; as tiny as she is, but capable of flying up into the vaults as easily as a ray of sunlight.
"Wake up, Ed," she murmurs, shaking his shoulder lightly.
"Time to go home."