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Country Matters


When Pinako heard Trisha Elric come in the back door, she quietly let herself out the front.

Rain had fallen yesterday evening without breaking the heat; the sun was already baking the shallow puddles in the drive to cracked, mustard-yellow depressions. As Pinako strode along the north wall of the house, she automatically checked the thermometer hanging there and grimaced: only midmorning and the mercury was topping 85 degrees and heading for 90. The afternoon's work in the shop promised to be brutal even with the forge quiescent. But she had served an apprenticeship in Rush Valley, where high summer regularly saw thermometers break if you were stupid enough to leave them in the sun. Sweat hadn't caused Pinako Rockbell to fumble a tool in all her forty-plus years building automail and she saw no reason to start today.

Passing beneath the kitchen windows, she heard her daughter-in-law and Trisha laughing together. Sara laughed frequently these days. Her husband claimed she had a craving for jokes instead of pickles or strawberries, but he himself grinned and chuckled whenever he saw her, and Pinako drew on her pipe to hide her own smile as she damned them both for a proper pair of fools. The good news still rang out like a bell every time the topic was touched: a baby—my first grandchild!—quick in the womb, due early in the new year. Another Rockbell of Riesenbuhl to follow in the family trade, if luck held. Pinako had brought a worn leather case down from the attic; between jobs she was cleaning and restoring the screwdrivers, wrenches, pliers, hammer and chisels, their handles sized for small fingers, that her mother had given her to play and learn with and she in turn had given to her son. The surgical side of the business had lured him on to become a doctor rather than an engineer—an honorable choice, of course, but also one that came in handy just now. She had not missed the exchange of glances between husband and wife when Sara had mentioned at breakfast that their neighbor would be by this morning to borrow some extra canning jars to handle this year's prodigal tomato crop. Pinako had no doubt that her daughter-in-law would find a pleasant way to delay Trisha in the kitchen until her son dropped in for an early lunch—no doubt that her son would offer Trisha a checkup in the surgery to spare her the long walk to the town clinic in the heat ...

No ... to spare her looks and whispers as pervasive as the heat.

Not that Trisha appeared to note or care what Riesenbuhl had been whispering since her own pregnancy had begun to show. Pinako sighed, ducking through the scrub at the yard's edge to reach the narrow path between the windbreak and the cornfield. Cicada chatter rose and fell in the trees above her head. The corn seemed to have turned yesterday's rain into another six inches of growth already; Andersen could expect a bumper crop, if the weather continued fair. He was getting a better yield anyway, from what Pinako heard down the pub, since he'd begun sowing that new strain the alchemists in Herzfeld had developed. It might be time to renegotiate the rent he was paying her for the use of her land. She'd have to remember to discuss that with Trisha (if they were still speaking after today); it was Pinako who had persuaded the girl to lease her fields to Andersen, too, rather than sell them or try to run the farm herself after her father's death. Along with her inheritance, the income was enough to keep her independent—too independent, maybe, in light of what had happened.

But Trisha had always seemed such a level-headed girl, not one to be swept off her feet by a passing stranger, even if that stranger were an old drinking buddy of one of Riesenbuhl's leading citizens. Hohenheim had never bothered to confirm or deny the anecdotes Pinako told about their work together in Rush Valley; she wondered now if she had made the long hours designing and testing improbable machines, interspersed with the occasional bar brawl, sound more romantic than they'd been. Nor had he offered Trisha any compliments on her face or dress, those evenings when she had joined the Rockbells and their guest for dinner. Instead, he had used his breath to argue engineering, medicine, alchemy and philosophy with all comers, disassembling and reassembling the world with words until exhaustion reduced everyone (except him) to monosyllables. If anything else had passed between him and Trisha during those discussions, it had been too subtle for Pinako to notice. No one had been more surprised than she when her houseguest had packed his bags and decamped down the road to the Elric place.

A snake whipped through the dried and tangled weeds at her feet, interrupting Pinako's thoughts and startling hell out of her. She slapped one hand against the closest tree-trunk and pressed the other to her chest to make sure her heart wouldn't escape her ribs. Slow down, you. I am still too young to feel this old. It had to be the weather: even in the shade the humidity clogged her pores like oil and seemed to halve the oxygen in every breath she drew. She was regretting taking the back way to Trisha's house; it was only a short cut when the fields lay fallow and you could walk straight across them. Following the line of the windbreaks doubled or maybe tripled the distance, but she'd be damned before she handed the gossips of Riesenbuhl another tidbit to chew. All summer long she had laid the weight of her name in the scales of public opinion with Hohenheim's for Trisha's sake; now it was time to take her thumb off the balance and show him what they risked.

Fifteen weary minutes later Pinako switched a trailing fold of her dress free of the forsythia hedge and emerged into Trisha's backyard. The kitchen garden was indeed running riot with tomato plants, vines crawling thick up cages a good foot taller than the usual. Under the broad leaves a few yellow flowers twinkled, while green fruit in all sizes—beads, bulbs and balls—dragged their moorings earthward. Everything ripe had already been stripped from the plants, but from the streaks of orange and pale yellow working their way along the plumpest unripe specimens, Pinako judged that another harvest was only a day or two away. She wondered if Hohenheim had done something to help the tomatoes along. She had always pegged him for more of a scholar than a practical alchemist, but that was before ... well. Then again, it had been a good year so far—look at Andersen's corn—and Trisha always made time for her gardens. She had the instincts of a farmer, if not the resources. Pinako's sandals had left a pale track through the thick green grass of something that truly deserved to be called a lawn rather than a patch of weeds all mown to the same height. The herbaceous and floral borders nestled against the house mixed the useful with the decorative: rosemary and fennel; pansies, daisies and columbines—sharp scents and bright colors equally beguiling under a pale sky. Pinako decided to be grateful that, whatever else was happening, at least Trisha hadn't planted zucchini, and continued on her way to the back porch with a shudder.

She let herself into the house, allowing the screen door to slam shut behind her for politeness' sake. Only the swallows nesting in one corner of the porch roof protested, their shrill cries following Pinako into the kitchen. The room smelled faintly of bacon fat and onion, but it was Trisha's two largest soup pots that squatted on the stove. Hohenheim might have to whistle for his dinner; a greater work was clearly in train. Tomatoes sat sunning themselves on the windowsills, heaped up in baskets along the wall by the table, ready in a bowl next to four rows of wide-mouthed glass jars. What in blazes will she do with all this when she's done? Pinako wondered. Keep it? Give it away? Sell it? Enter it in the county fair, as she had done now and again in the past—like nothing's changed? Pinako felt her mouth draw in, as if she had tasted sour milk. "Hello?" she called out. "Anybody home?"

No answer. She pushed open the door to the dining room and walked past the china cabinet to the arch that led into the front parlor, sandals slapping quietly against bare wood. She'd feel a right fool coming all this way if he weren't around, if he'd made some unaccountable trip into town or across the hills ... or had left altogether. No, unlikely: would Trisha have laughed so comfortably if he had just taken his leave of her? He was scrupulous about things like that, or had been. Pinako stopped in the center of the parlor and shifted up and down on the balls of her feet. "Hohenheim!" she shouted. "You in?"

She heard the creak of floorboards before she saw the door to the study move, so her heart had time to settle into an easier pace before he ducked under the lintel. A big man, but graceful with it: she'd never had to worry about him bumping against delicate gear in a crowded workspace or upsetting a shelf full of tools when sent to fetch just one. A good man to have at your back in a fight, too, because for some reason drunks always ignored his height and the breadth of his shoulders and focused on the glasses and the bronze hair tied off in a dandy's queue and the mild expression that seemed to promise an easy mark. She knew that expression well and told herself it didn't fool her anymore. "'Morning," she said.

"Good morning, Pinako. You just missed Trisha—I think." He rubbed the back of his neck, glancing around as if to reacquaint himself with the parlor. "She said last night that she'd be visiting your place today."

"I know. She and Sara are thick as thieves lately, and who can blame them?"

He smiled and said nothing. Pinako had never known Hohenheim to speak anything but the truth, but that didn't mean he babbled. He answered questions or slipped them as he chose and nothing—not persistence nor embarrassment nor threat nor guile—could force him to reply unless it pleased him. His silence was as deep as a well and as strong as a barn door, but he had rarely shut her out with it. Maybe because you never asked many questions. Well, she had one or two to put today. Better get them in before the door slammed in her face.

"So," she said, "when's the wedding?"

He didn't even twitch. "We aren't planning one."

She didn't twitch, either, although it was hard to match his matter-of-factness as another sliver of hope sublimated into chilly nothing behind her ribs. Never mind. Keep going. "Were you planning to stick around for the birth?"

"Of course," he said, his eyes making another survey of the room (rocking chair, lamp, sofa, fireplace, upright piano) before coming back to rest on her. Only half-attending—and where the other half of his attention might be was a question she couldn't even begin to answer. He held his secrets so close there was no probing them; preoccupied with the arcana of her own trade, she'd never wasted time trying, never thought she'd feel the lack. The clock on the mantel whirred and chimed the quarter hour; he pulled out his watch and checked it, then looked at her as if to say, Anything else? I am very busy this morning ...

She stiffened, though she was almost certain he didn't intend rudeness—but how he could stand there and pass off her prying so casually beggared belief. "That's something, then," she said, letting her tone go a touch waspish. React, damn you. "A lot of men don't have the stomach for it."

"True."

Something seemed to be amusing him now, and she by-God hoped it wasn't her, because then she'd have to kill him. Back when she was young and hormonal, he'd intervened more than once to save her skinny ass from demolition by some lunk she'd tried to cold-cock for snickering at the idea of a woman designing automail. The ass was better padded these days and she'd learned to take her revenges more deviously, but the principle remained: no one laughed at Pinako Rockbell, not for being an engineer nor yet a middle-aged nosy-parker. Especially not for being a middle-aged nosy-parker. She set her hands on her hips and held on to her temper, more or less. "A lot of men don't care about the calf," she said, "as long as they can get all the milk they want from the cow."

That old chestnut got a reaction from him at last: he blinked at her and bit his lips, as if to stifle a laugh, and her hands curled into fists. "Pinako," he said, "are you—are you asking me my intentions toward Trisha?"

She bared her teeth at him. No one who knew her well would have called it a smile. "Somebody has to."

He did her the courtesy of struggling with the idea before rejecting it, to judge by the creases that came and went in his forehead. It was the indulgent look with which he favored her afterward that made her jaws ache to bite something. "Pinako. You're a good sort, but this is truly none of your business."

"The hell it isn't. I've known that girl since she took her first steps"—and shook her pigtails at anyone who tried to help her—"and I've known you for—for more than thirty years." His expression sharpened as he caught the hitch in her words. Dammit. She hurried on. "You're friends. That makes it my business."

The patch of sunlight on the floor by the piano faded, brightened and faded again while he considered that. "No," he said at last. "It doesn't."

Pinako dropped her gaze to his shirtfront, unwilling to continue craning her neck back to meet his eyes. She hated being loomed over, but it seemed to happen more and more often now, as if she had been losing inches since the change of life. He hadn't shrunk any, for damn sure, no more than he had grayed or learned to take advice. You haven't changed a bit, Hohenheim, she thought helplessly, but that surely was no business of hers. She hadn't come to confront the sameness of him, but the difference—the nonconformity anyone could mark and everyone did, till neither he nor Trisha could walk through town without idle tongues flicking out to taste the scandal in the air. "People are starting to talk," she blurted and immediately damned herself for a ninny. If he didn't care what she thought, why should he reck the opinions of Riesenbuhl's tale-bearers?

Sure enough, he relaxed, amusement seeping back into his voice. "People do that."

She ground her knuckles against the wings of her pelvis. You fool, she wanted to yell at him, you've gypsied all over the world, but you don't have any idea what it's like to live in a small town, do you? It doesn't end with them talking about you—it ends with them talking to everyone but you, and you up here alone with poor Trisha and the baby, and what kind of life is that for them? She wasn't sure what showed in her face as she fought to mill her rough-cast objections into something pithy and persuasive, or whether he even noticed her distress. Yet his next words were sober enough.

"Don't worry, Pinako," he said quietly. "I know what I'm doing."

Before she could frame a reply, he had nodded a polite dismissal, turned and retreated into the study, shutting the door behind him.

The clock ticked on, each second louder than the last, while the sun slowly gilded the piano's brass fittings until they could burn afterimages on the careless eye. Pinako shook her head, hands clenching and unclenching in her skirt. So that's the answer? Not "I love her" or "I wouldn't abandon my own child" but "I know what I'm doing"? She pushed herself up on her toes again and considered the study door. Removing it was not an option: the hinges were inaccessible. Pick the lock? He'd just jam a chair under the knob. She could hammer on the panels until her fists bled or she could leave now and the result would be the same—she'd get nothing more from him. If she took discretion for her tutor, she could at least retire with her dignity intact. She glared at the door again and hoped he felt her gaze boring into his back. What are you doing, Hohenheim? And why the hell did you come here to do it?

Eight cheerful notes, the first repetition of a tune that lodged all too easily in the ear, marked the half hour as Pinako returned to the kitchen. Time to shine, indeed: how Trisha kept the blue and white tiles clean and polished in the midst of canning enough tomatoes to feed Riesenbuhl for a month was a mystery as deep as almost any of Hohenheim's. Maybe that's what holds him here, Pinako thought, but the sally failed to lift her mood. Sighing, she crossed to the sink and helped herself to a glass of water. Win or lose, arguing was thirsty work. She rinsed the glass and left it to drain on the board: no need to hide that someone had used it. She wondered if Hohenheim would mention her visit to Trisha or if it would join the other secrets locked away behind his silence. Well, whatever you're doing and whatever comes of it, I'll keep an eye on that child—those children, she emended, thinking of the baby. Because whatever you say, this is my business.

She held the screen door to keep it from annoying the swallows again, but the birds cheeped furiously at her anyway as she walked down the steps. Among the high clouds drifting behind the roof the sun blazed white, but down in garden and hedgerow a breeze whispered like rain through the leaves. With luck, they might see another shower tonight and perhaps even a break in the humidity; at the very least, hot moving air was preferable to hot still air. Pinako lifted her face into the current and smiled. Look at you, worrying about them, as if men and women haven't been anticipating the registrar since the first one hung out his shingle. Not to mention that she had the obligations of her own shingle to live up to. The four-thirty cleaning-and-adjustment was rote work and the seven o'clock waiver-and-measurements a matter of stating the rigors of automail surgery just bluntly enough but not too bluntly, but the pair of hands she was constructing to the specifications of a colleague in Central were at a delicate stage, requiring not only a steady grip but an undistracted brain. She began calling up the design before her mind's eye; no sense wasting the walk home in futile solicitude when producing a properly calibrated set of phalangeal servomotors could give a carpenter back his livelihood. Tapping her tongue against her palate as she thought, Pinako trudged across the lawn toward the break in the hedge.

Behind her, a single swallow darted from under the eaves and beat its way west.