Ed walked out under the wide eaves of the disused tobacco barn, trying not to limp visibly.
He grimaced, wishing that any of his accumulated aches were severe enough to distract him from the impatience gnawing at his nerves. This long detour around Central was only the latest delay he and his companions had encountered in their helter-skelter flight from Briggs. They'd met check after check in the north, driven repeatedly off-course by hostile weather and Loyalist patrols, but each dodge had kept them alive for another mile, another day, until they'd crept at last down out of the broken lands ruled by the mountains and found central Amestris basking in the warmth of an early spring. They'd been able to hurry then, taking full advantage of the season's gifts: cover in the verges; fresh greens and new-laid eggs for the dinner-pot; and copious trade up and down the rail lines of the country's industrial heartland. Hopping one freight after another, they'd crossed in hours distances that would have cost them weary days afoot.
But, like all good things, that convenience hadn't lasted. He and Al had decided it was best to avoid Central altogether rather than gamble that they could axle-swing through the city undiscovered. Too many people, they'd explained to Winry and Mei Chan. The yards are too well-guarded and we're too well-known (Ed would have amputated his other arm before using the phrase too conspicuous where his brother could hear). And, though neither admitted it aloud, Ed knew that Al was as reluctant as he to set foot on ground controlled so closely by the homunculi and their Father—not with what they now carried, and especially not with two girls in tow. So they'd rolled out of their last boxcar at a siding above Fitcher's Rest to cut south-west through farm country, following back roads bordered by cornfields and cow pastures. Ed forced himself to admit that so far everything had gone as planned. In a few more days they'd reach Burlton, where one of Central-and-Southern's spurs terminated; they could catch another rattler at a crossing and make Dublith in a week.
If the weather holds, he couldn't help adding. And nobody sees us or—-
A jumble of noises yanked him out of his brown study—familiar noises: his brother's softly clashing sabatons and the bean-girl's chirping voice and Winry's laughter. Ed tensed. Can't she keep it down? You'd think they were on a picnic, not hiding from the homunculi and the military and the Truth knew who else ...
He slumped lower among the weeds, but no one came searching for him. Instead, they headed away toward the pond, Mei Chan chattering like a house sparrow and Al clearly shortening his stride to match hers. Refilling the canteens, Ed guessed. Good. He needed just a little more time to convince his foot to stop behaving like a brass band. If he dismissed everything but the drum corps, he could charge any stumbles to the ground tonight. They wouldn't be leaving until well after sunset, trusting Al to guide them through the dense thicket of sassafras and witch hazel to the road.
He saw as keenly now in the dark as the cats he loved: no compensation for his bodiless state, but neither he nor Ed shied from using the advantage. When Al had spotted the overgrown ruts in the hedgerow near dawn, his brother had needed no prompting to investigate. They'd hoped for a secluded clearing—when the barn loomed into view, Ed had scarcely been able to believe their luck. The walls were thick and solid, the shingling intact, but no leaves hung drying from the tier poles and none of the surrounding fields was under cultivation (unless some fool had decided to raise a crop of evergreen millet and thistles). The others had quickly made themselves at home; Winry'd had them unpacked almost before Ed finished scouting. We may be sleeping rough, she'd said, but at least we're under a roof.
Her enthusiasm for that small luxury had irritated Ed as much as the bad pun. At this point on their journey, he liked to think it didn't matter where they slept, as long as it was hidden and reasonably defensible. He'd found it difficult not to snap at her when she laid out everyone's bedrolls with the solicitude of a hotel chambermaid expecting a big tip. She's never complained about where we camped before—what's the big deal now? It's not like she's home safe—-
He heard the swish of someone's legs through the knee-high grass, walking without concealment; then, as if his thoughts had called her up, Winry poked her head around the corner. Her hair was still drying from the cold-water wash she'd given it before supper. Though she'd ponytailed most of it back, loose sidelocks coiled in random directions around her face. "Hi," she said.
Ed grunted dismissively.
She waded over to sit next to him anyway, crushing more millet and sending another swarm of dust mites aloft. "Give me your foot," she said, but when he crossed his legs to present his automail, she shook her head. "No, the other one."
"What for?" he asked, trying to act as if it didn't feel ready to drop off at the ankle.
Winry put her eyebrows up and looked at him. He returned the look for ten seconds for form's sake, then capitulated and offered her his right leg. She hitched forward to take his foot in her lap, unlacing his boot and easing it off. "Step on a bee, did you?"
Ed shrugged as she pulled down his sock. Well, what was there to say? "I was ambushed"? He'd seen the hive in the sycamore tree thrusting its mottled branches over the eastern shore of the pond—that's why he'd gone for a splash on the opposite side when his turn came to wash. He'd hadn't expected to find bees in the waxy green patches of nutsedge along the bank any more than he'd intended to put his socks on until his feet were dry. And then the blasted insect had used its dying breath to send its friends a distress call; he hadn't even had time to slap mud on the welt before half the colony charged him. He'd legged it back to the barn, hopping and swearing until he got within earshot of the others, eluding his pursuers with an abrupt excitation of the air between them. He'd nixed, perhaps too firmly, Al's suggestion that they raid the hive for honey, but otherwise he thought he'd done a pretty good job pretending the incident hadn't happened. Dammit. He hated being fussed over and he'd certainly walked off worse injuries than this.
He had to admit, though, that Winry wasn't fussing (she reserved that for damage to his automail) and that she knew how to examine his sole without tickling it. "We didn't think you were just footsore," she said.
"We?" Ed asked. Damn, damn, damn! If his ailments were being diagnosed by committee now, he might as well go and drown himself in the pond. Not that he cared what Bean-Girl thought, but Al was a world-class fusser.
"Yeah. Mei Chan volunteered to fix you up with her alchemy."
"Oh, sh— "
Winry took a firmer grip on his leg, preventing him from rising. "Calm down," she ordered. "Al distracted her. She's teaching him about medicinal herbs." Keeping hold of his ankle with one hand, she reached into her jacket pocket with the other and produced a few green leaves, egg-shaped and thickly veined. "They found a patch of lamb's foot right out back, lucky for you. Mei Chan says they have something like it in Xing, but they use it for eye problems. Here." She waved the leaves under his nose. "Chew these up and I'll make you a poultice."
Ed sighed, but opened his mouth and let her feed him the lamb's foot. The herb was bitter, but not unpleasantly so: toss it with some sliced pecans and oranges, drizzle it with vinegar and oil, and he'd even call it tasty. Winry fished a damp handkerchief from her sleeve and flapped it around while he chewed; then she folded it into a long rectangle and held it beneath his chin. "They're getting along well," she said.
Ed, discerning a cue, spat out his cud. "Who?"
Winry let the question hang for a few seconds as she gently pressed the pulpy mass against the sting. Ed twitched all over at the contact, but she tied the cloth over the arch of his foot before he could jerk away. "Sorry. Al and Mei Chan."
"Cat people," Ed grumbled, seizing gladly on the change of topic. "The way they fuss over feeding that thing now, you'd never think Al stuffed it full of table scraps every day in Central." According to the Bean-Girl Alchemist, her pet's digestion was very delicate: tender greens, sweet flowers, and the occasional piece of fruit were what it wanted, though in a pinch it could survive on coarser fare. Ed's own experience of the beast had led him to conclude it had the appetite of a goat, zestfully ingesting anything that got within range of its jaws, from C-rations to human flesh—but try telling that to Al. You're scaring it, Brother. It's a defensive instinct ...
Winry rolled up his sock and tucked it into his boot. "Ed, I don't think it's a cat."
"Well, it's sure as heck not a dog." He wriggled his toes, relaxing as the poultice began to counter the effects of the apitoxin. The brass band slowly broke formation, its members peeling off by ones and twos, leaving the field to the quiet influence of the lamb's foot. Ed resolved to sneak some of the leaves into his own pocket before they left ... just for emergencies, of course.
He glanced sideways at Winry. Judging by the self-satisfied smirk playing hide-and-seek with her dimples, she knew exactly what he was thinking. In that case, Ed decided, thanks were unnecessary.
He propped his right ankle on his left as Winry settled in beside him, idly knotting and unknotting his bootlaces. The last of the sunset lingered in the treetops to gild the young leaves tatting intricate patterns against the sky. A pair of mourning doves called back and forth to each other across the clearing, their voices mellow as wooden flutes. Ed felt peace all around him, like warm water, and instinctively held his breath.
He'd have given every cen in his research budget to be able to release that breath and float. These days, when he didn't collapse onto his bedroll in snorting exhaustion, he slept in spurts, waking every hour or so to exchange looks with Al, like watchmen meeting on their rounds. All's well—all's well. But peace and safety were an illusion. Rats as well as doves nested in lonely barns; bees hid in the nutsedge; and the homunculi tunneled under Amestris like wasps. He couldn't let his guard down, not until he knew the danger was past.
And he couldn't lead anyone further into danger who still trusted a roof to shield her from it.
"Listen, Winry," he said, "when we get to Teacher's, I think you ought to stay there."
Her fingers froze, fouled in the laces. "No."
"Don't—look, I know you want to go to Rush Valley, but it's not safe." He leaned forward to catch her eye, but her head swiveled away. "They'll know where to find you," he insisted, willing her to believe him, "and nobody there can protect you."
"And you think your teacher can?" she asked. "From the military, and from those ... things?"
Ed managed not to shrink from the question. On the rare days when he slept deeply enough for nightmares, sometimes he walked into Izumi's house to find Gluttony picking his teeth with her finger bones—and sometimes he sat in her kitchen, telling her everything he knew or suspected about the homunculi and their plans, and when he finished she smiled at him with Envy's gloating mouth. "She's a powerful alchemist, and she hates the military," he answered, certain of that much. "She wouldn't spit on them if they were thirsty. And her husband, Sig, he's ... " He stopped, because Winry had turned to face him and he couldn't lie to her, not even by omission. "They'll take care of you," he said, hoping that would be enough. "And when this is all over, you can go to the Valley, I promise."
She frowned, her eyes steel-blue in the shadow of her brows. "What makes you think I want to go to the Valley?"
He grinned at her, half-knowingly, half-quizzically. "Well, of course you d—"
"I want to stay with you!" Her lips pursed shut; she lowered her gaze and her voice. "With you and Al, I mean. I want to help." Her hands squeezed the mouth of his boot into a shallow oval. "I want to fight."
"Winry!" He couldn't believe it. After all they'd been through, he couldn't believe he was hearing this from her. Seven different synonyms for idiot jostled for precedence in his larynx, choking off any rational response he might have made.
Winry leaped immediately into the breach. "You heard what Major General Armstrong said—"
"Before or after she kicked us out?" Ed interjected, recovering.
"—what she said," Winry continued, glaring at him. "The military can't fight this battle alone. It's everyone's war, everyone in Amestris."
"No!" Ed drove his right fist back against the side of the barn. Small chunks of clay, gouged loose by the impact, fell to the ground between them. Hell, didn't she remember that rubble-strewn alley in Central and the gun she couldn't fire? Didn't she remember what she'd told Scar in Briggs about not seeking revenge? Damn the Major-General and her speeches! "Not yours!"
"Yes, mine!" She flung the words back at him with such force that he flinched. "Because my parents died in Ishbal! Because half Granny's patients, and Master Garfiel's, lost their limbs there! Because you—because if we don't all stand up to this—this evil, we might as well be helping it!" She snatched a breath and hurried on before he could interrupt. "I don't know what I can do yet, except your automail maintenance. And walk halfway across Amestris," she added, with a fleeting smile. "But Granny always says, For want of a nail ..." She touched his right wrist with the tips of three fingers. "Let me come with you."
Only a quarter of the way, walking. Staring at their hands, soft flesh and tempered steel, Ed knew better than to think Winry's tentative gesture belied the strength of her resolve. He struggled to find the words to remind her that she had no place on the front lines, that the battle belonged to him and Al and the bastard Colonel and Major-General More-Mouth-Than-Sense ... Or no: maybe not to her, either. "She's wrong, General Armstrong," he said, thinking it through as he spoke. "Fighting—fighting isn't going to beat them. They don't care whose blood gets spilled to draw their circle." Unwillingly he recalled the raveled wraiths of Xerxes, pleading for release, and swallowed bile with the salt-rust taste of memory. "The whole country could revolt," he concluded, "and they'd just make sure all the big battles happened where they needed crests of blood."
"But they have to be stopped somehow," Winry said, not arguing this time, but as if she, too, were rethinking the problem.
Her forefinger traced little circles on the plate below his wrist, clockwise and counterclockwise. Bees, Ed remembered irrelevantly, were supposed to communicate with each other by dancing like that. He wished Winry herself were so cryptic; then he could pretend not to understand what she meant. "I know," he replied. "But fighting isn't the answer; I've ... fought them enough to know." All those losing battles and Pyrrhic victories and not a thing to show for his efforts but broken bones and shattered automail and more questions than he'd started from home with, including the ones he'd been sidestepping for the past month. If Teacher doesn't have any answers, what then? And what about Al? How much time can we waste on this? He shrugged his shoulders and lifted his chin. "There has to be another solution."
"Maybe." His left hand went reflexively to his waistband to check the envelope tucked beneath his shirt. The scribblings of a self-taught Ishbalan alchemist were a meager foundation on which to build their hopes of victory. Yet he and Al had gone searching for the Philosopher's Stone on evidence that was little more than rumor and found a reality solid enough to bruise themselves against. All we have to do is solve the riddles—me and Al and Teacher and Bean-Girl. "But that's not something you can help with. And—" Ed turned his other hand over and gripped Winry's, palm to palm—"and I don't want them using you to get to me ever again."
Her fingers tightened around his. "I won't let them," she said.
Ed scowled at her. "Yeah? How?"
Her expression hardened, like blown glass cooling into fragile rigidity, and this time Ed mentally kicked himself for being seven kinds of idiot. "It doesn't matter," he went on before she could answer. "Everyone I care about's a target—I can't protect them all, but I will protect you." He swallowed his pride and abandoned argument. "Please, Winry. I lost Mom. I almost lost Al. I don't want to lose you."
Winry's eyes and mouth rounded. Ed had a moment in which to congratulate himself and another in which to marvel at the power of the word "please"—guess Mom was right—and then she swooped forward and kissed him.
Her lips collided mostly with his cheek, but the edge of her mouth just nipped the corner of his. He was too astonished to recoil, sitting as stupidly still as Mei Chan's cat when Al stroked it. She rocked away from him afterward, blushing. His own skin tingled where she'd touched him; he felt the heat spreading across his face like an inflammation. "What—what was that for?" he stuttered.
She bent forward again; he leaned prudently back. "For caring about me," she said.
Ed ducked his head, surreptitiously rubbing the side of his mouth to check for a welt. Is that all? Of course he cared about her—had he ever given her a reason to think that he didn't? Or that he, well ...
(Lieutenant Hawkeye eyed him across a kitchen table forty miles and three months distant. "You love Winry, don't you?")
Dammit, why were all these women ganging up on him? Hydrogen, helium, lithium, beryllium, boron ... hell! "Yeah, well, sure," he said gruffly. "Just don't get any funny ideas!"
It was difficult to judge in the gathering dusk, but Ed was certain that Winry wasn't half as parboiled with self-consciousness as he felt. And now she was smiling at him—scratch that, she was grinning. Practically giggling. Isn't she embarrassed at all? She cocked her head, waiting patiently for an answer he realized he didn't yet have. "Like—like—" Well, like kissing him again, for one. Everything she did improved with practice; the next time she might hit him square on the lips—and why the hell was he worried about that?
No: why the hell wasn't he worried about it?
Ed squashed that notion with the same vehemence he reserved for intimations of defeat and waved off its accompanying swarm of fancies before they could start harassing him as well. "Like changing the subject!" he said. This conversation had had a point once; he wasn't going to be sedu—distracted from achieving his objective. Drawing himself up, he barked at Winry, "You're staying with Teacher, and that's final!"
She did giggle then, mercifully dropping her chin and stifling the sound before it rang out to disturb the crickets courting in the weeds. Ed eyed her with mingled apprehension and disgust. What is this, spring fever? If so, it was desperately ill-timed: he already had plenty to worry about without having to contend with people ki—laughing instead of doing what they were told. He hastily marshaled his scattered wits, preparing a bombardment of common sense and logic that would annihiliate whatever resistance she mustered next.
But Winry said nothing and the hair falling loose across her cheek hid what little of her expression he might have glimpsed in the twilight. A couple of early glow-worms winked in and out among the witch hazel's withered florets; somewhere above a mockingbird whistled and rasped. After a while Ed noticed that the silence between them was growing less uncomfortable as it lengthened ... and that he was still holding Winry's hand. He fidgeted briefly, but she ignored the hint and he gave up. At least automail didn't sweat. And the first pinpricks of starlight were poking through the sky; they'd be leaving soon enough.
"Sure is—sure is warm out here," he said. His voice rose and broke, vocal cords slipping like a bad belt; he cleared his throat and tried again. "You'd think it was almost summer."
He heard Winry sigh. "Not yet," she said. "We've got a long way to go."