Den is barking at something unseen. Winry cracks open her door hesitantly, and is surprised to find a corpse there. It appears to be accompanied by a panicked man in Xingese clothes carrying a toolbox, tentatively nudging the corpse with a toe. The corpse looks oddly familiar.
"Excuse me, are you...all right?" she ventures, only to be greeted by the horrifying sight of the corpse immediately sitting up and grinning at her.
"Ah, Miss Winry! I apologise, I am in the habit of fainting from hunger from time to time. I think Edward might have told you the specifics of our situation. This is the mechanic!"
"Oh, Ling Yao! I didn't recognise you...since your face was pressed into my doormat. Well, would you like to come in? I was just about to have dinner. Edward told me you'd be arriving tomorrow morning!"
"I apologise, we arrived early. Of course I would hate to impose. But I would also hate to turn down this traditional Amestrian hospitality," Ling says. Just as she's about to open the door wider, she notices that Ling has somehow managed to get inside the living room, bypassing her entirely, and is currently lounging on her chair. His helper looks at him, then looks at the tiny gap between the doorframe and the door. A puzzled expression crosses his face.
Winry opens the door for his helper.
Over dinner, Winry finds out the details of the visit, which Edward hadn't really bothered to mention, as his phone call went along the lines of "My Xingese...acquaintance will be visiting the morning of the day after tomorrow so his mechanic can learn from you," and he had hung up before Winry could ask him anything else. She jokes about Edward's uncommunicative nature, and Ling politely omits the fact that he had clung to Edward's leg until he made the phone call to Winry, because Edward had the strange belief that Ling was an incorrigible philanderer that would corrupt Winry's soul and refused to even contact her at first.
Ling's mechanic, Xiao Ming, is there to learn automail repair techniques from her. Automail is relatively foreign to Xing, and there aren't any Xingese mechanics that are even on par with Rush Valley's third-tier repair shops. Winry wishes Pinako was at home to help her out, but sadly she left for a countryside vacation a few days ago.
"Well, of course, if there's any major repair work to be done on Lan Fan's arm, we'll visit you, but we were hoping that we could take care of minor repairs by ourselves. Xiao Ming here has read the theory, but I'd like him to learn from the master of automail. I was very impressed by your work on Edward's arm!" He grins at her, as if they're sharing a secret of sorts. He takes another mouthful of stew, and his eyes close in absolute bliss, as if it's the best dish he's ever eaten.
Winry, somehow, has to try very hard not to blush.
The following days pass by uneventfully. There's breakfast in the morning, which Ling enthusiastically devours, and after that, she heads off to the workshop with Xiao Ming.
Ling spends the time reading her books, writing in his journal, and sitting with his eyes closed, as if he's meditating on something. His lips move when he's doing that, as if he's communicating with something that no one can quite see. Sometimes after meditating he moves in a different way, like he's full of sharp edges, and he handles objects like he could cut them open with the slightest touch. This routine follows through all the other meals of the day, including supper, which consists of Ling sneaking into the kitchen and staring forlornly at the leftover apple pies until Winry notices that he's awake and heats them up for him. Ling and Xiao Ming sleep in the guest room, although Xiao Ming tries to sleep as late as possible so that he can have more practice with repairwork until Winry shoos him off to bed.
Xiao Ming is an eager learner, and he has a good grasp of theory, so most of Winry's work consists of familiarising him with the instruments and making it second nature to pinpoint any defects. She hopes to get him to the point where the wrench is a familiar weight in his hand rather than an instrument occasionally used. He has a delicate touch with the screwdriver, which is always an asset. He smiles slightly whenever Winry compliments his work. They spend time staring at the list of automail specs and the blueprints that Lan Fan's mechanic provided, and she tries to restrain herself from pointing out some of the defects. It's good work, just not as good as what she could accomplish. She's confident that he'll do fine with minor repairs, particularly with his enthusiasm. She only wishes that there was more time, so that she could teach him more about alloys and how to forge automail, but his main purpose is to learn how to repair Lan Fan's automail.
Ling doesn't intrude, but he stands at the doorway from time to time, looking at their progress, one hand on the frame of the door. When she takes out the blueprint of Lan Fan's arm and spreads it on the table, he quietly walks away.
Her visitors will have to leave soon. Ling mentions this over dinner, looking at her to gauge her reaction, and Xiao Ming looks almost betrayed.
"I'd like to thank you for your help," Ling says, hands curled around a mug of hot cocoa. It's the middle of the night, but neither of them can sleep, so they're both sitting on the sofa with hot cocoa and marshmallows. Except that all the marshmallows somehow vanished into Ling's mug. She has no idea how they all fit in there, but then again, she has no idea how Ling manages to fit all the food he consumes in his stomach. He eats more than Edward.
"You're welcome, it's always a pleasure to teach someone who's eager to learn." She's not trying to please him, it's the honest truth. Edward had never cared about the intricate details about how his automail was constructed as long as it worked, and despite all his alchemical knowledge, he was hopeless at figuring out how to repair it. She had shrieked when she first saw him transmute it into a blade, and had insisted that he transmute it back so she could open it up to check for damage. The first few blade transmutations had resulted in a few misaligned screws, and she had painstakingly explained the theory to him, jabbing a screwdriver at a diagram, until he could do it perfectly.
"Ah, I see. What do you want in life, Winry?" He raises an eyebrow and looks at her, and both of his eyes are half-open, as if everything hinges on her next answer. She gets the feeling that he is asking another question entirely, but answers the question that he asked anyway.
"Well, regarding automail - I'd like to learn as much as I possibly can and become an expert. I hope to have a happy life with family and friends, maybe settle down...have a couple of kids, the usual."
"Fair enough, fair enough. Care to be my empress?"
Winry nearly chokes on her cocoa. Ling takes their mugs and sets them down on the table, then pats her back and eases her through the coughing fit. She wheezes.
"I declined that the last time!"
"I know, but hope springs eternal! We would have the most stunning children, yes?" Ling grins, but there's something missing from it, and his shoulders are tight. Winry looks at him inquisitively, waiting for him to speak.
He bites his upper lip - the fangs he had from his stint as Greed were gone.
"The last time we met, you said you...had someone who needed you. Are you still waiting for him?" The words sound like they're being dragged out from him.
"Yes. Yes, I am," and she thinks of Edward, who sacrificed an arm and a leg and years of his life, Edward, with all limbs intact, who ate the apple pie that she'd baked to celebrate the brothers being alive and getting their bodies back and left with Al to help rebuild the country shortly after. Edward, who doesn't need her to fix him anymore, and it's stupid and selfish but sometimes she wishes he still had automail just so she could do something that she was capable of doing for him.
"I...now I understand what you meant, the last time. How do you bear it?"
"...I don't know," and her hands clench, her nails digging into her palms, and she doesn't even know why she's crying now, but the floodgates are open and her promise not to cry from sadness ended when Al got his body back and Edward regained his limbs and she can't stop sobbing. Ling almost looks surprised, but he's quick to react, and gently strokes her back, shushing her. Winry pulls him closer, pressing her face against his chest, and he wraps his arms around her in a hug, firmly embracing her until she's less shaky, murmuring vague platitudes.
They both spend the rest of the night talking in the darkened living room, pressed against each other on the sofa like they're the only thing connecting each other to the living world. Ling shakily tells her his story.
Greed is subdued by Ling's will, but the stone still throbs in his chest and through his veins, and he's waiting to consolidate his position before he starts to usurp power. The emperor doesn't have much longer, and doesn't know about what Ling has within his body yet. Ling hopes to gain more of a political foothold before ascending, and is currently contemplating what he should reveal to the emperor that will aid him without making him immortal.
This is all bearable. The days are a struggle, dealing with the Imperial Court and his brothers and the constant assassination attempts and praying that the emperor won't die before his opportunity to take over, and Greed invades his dreams with the souls of the stone screaming at him, but it's bearable. The situation with Lan Fan, on the other hand, is not. He loves her, in the way that Ling loves people, wholeheartedly and selfishly. She refuses. Not because she doesn't love him - she would give her life for him. But she is entirely committed to him becoming the emperor, and having a love affair with his loyal retainer would impede his ascension.
Lan Fan has told him that she can never be with him. Ling's here because repairing Lan Fan's automail is the one thing that he knows she would let him do for her.
Sometimes Ling wishes Lan Fan were more selfish.
If Winry hears his breath becoming harsh, and feels his chest heaving, as if he's struggling to keep from crying, she doesn't show it.
They curl around each other until sunrise.
The two men will depart the next morning.
This day is spent as usual, except with everyone stating how much they will miss each other, promises to visit soon, and Ling compliments her cooking more than he usually does. Even the taciturn Xiao Ming tries to talk more during their meals, which gives Ling more chances to steal his food.
She gives Xiao Ming some smaller screwdrivers, the contact details of other automail mechanics and a guidebook on metals and alloys. Xiao Ming clutches the guidebook to his chest, and thanks her profusely, running upstairs to try and pack his overflowing luggage.
She bakes a fresh pumpkin pie for Ling for supper, and they sit at the kitchen table together. Ling, as a concession to her, has cut out a small wedge for her consumption and proceeded to eat the rest of the pie straight from the tin.
He pauses momentarily to ask her a question.
"It's always been apple pies - why pumpkin today? Not that I mind, of course, it is perfectly delicious!" and he scoots the pie tin closer to him as if Winry will snatch it away.
She giggles at his protectiveness of the tin, then thinks for a moment.
"It's pumpkin season now, so I wanted to try something new. I wanted to use the apples up before today, though."
"You make a lot of apple pies, no?" He tilts his head to one side, like a curious puppy.
"I've...had a lot of practice. It's almost like a routine, I haven't baked another kind of pie in a long time."
"I think I prefer this kind. It is more filling!" He's running his finger around the tin to catch the last few pie crumbs.
"...the word 'filling' doesn't mean anything to you, does it?"
He sheepishly nods, then stares at the oven hungrily. She sighs, puts on the oven mitts, takes another pumpkin pie out, and hands it over to him.
After cleanup, they end up on the sofa again. It's easier to talk with the lights out, and after last night they seem to have forged some sort of familiarity with each other.
When he places a hand on top of hers, she doesn't pull away, but turns around to hug him. He startles at this, and her hands clutch the back of his shirt as she struggles to vocalise an emotion she can't even name, holding him there.
"Please, Ling," and she can't even think of what should follow after that, but she's begging him for something he might not even be able to offer. She doesn't know if the next sentence should start with "I want" or "I need", but it's been too long since she's been so unabashedly selfish.
"I know," he murmurs, stroking her hair gently. "I want a lot of things too."
And he draws her into a kiss, it's surprisingly chaste, not at all what she imagined what a kiss by him would be like, and she deepens it, giving him tacit permission, her moans swallowed by him.
She doesn't want to wait anymore, and when Ling's hand pauses at the first button of her oversized nightshirt, she nods and guides it there as she works to take off his clothes. It's clumsy, but eventually they're both naked, desperate to touch each other.
Her legs are spread for his tongue, which laps gently at her opening, teasing her, making her squirm against him, and they're both laughing because this isn't how they imagined it going at all, but it's somehow better than what they both thought it would be like, and her laughter changes into a moan as his tongue goes further inside her.
Somewhere in between, Ling's eyes are closed in bliss as Winry hesitantly lowers herself down on him, slick and ready, and the pace is erratic because they can't really decide who should take control of the rhythm and they keep pausing just to enjoy the sensation of another person's body, near to them, someone who won't leave them for now, and for a moment, before it's over, it's like they're the only two people in the world.
It's messy and rough, not like her fantasies at all, but he's there and he understands and sometimes that's enough.
She's standing outside the bathroom door, a preliminary farewell before Xiao Ming wakes up and they have to eat their final breakfast and she has to say goodbye.
"You could still be my empress, you know," and Ling is looking at her, deadly serious. "When I'm the emperor..."
"I'll come to your country and be the new Sage of the West, teaching them how to build automail, and Emperor Ling won't stop me."
"I don't think I could stop you."
She's standing outside the door to her house, and she's tired of saying goodbye. It seems like all she's ever done is say goodbye.
But she says it anyway, one more time.
"Goodbye, Xiao Ming - remember to write if you have any problems! And...goodbye, Ling."
"See you, Winry," and he smiles, like it's certain that there will be a next time, just because he believes in it.
She smiles back.
"See you, Ling."
She watches them go, and thinks about her future.