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Eyecatch


The knock on Rush Valley among outsiders is that it has only two seasons: summer and Yole. Those who live there know better—know the long dry days begin in spring, after the last of the winter storms have washed through the gullies, leaving them briefly fragrant with catmint and golden with poppies—know that the dog days are ruled by the monsoon, Creata's gift to southern Amestris, attended by rain and hail and haboob—know to look up as the days shorten and number the stars glittering in a sky as clear and dark as lava glass—know that the best chance for snow comes with the nor'westers in the month following Yole, but brace for the dust that scours the valley whenever the wind outruns the wet.

In fact, anyone who visits Rush Valley quickly learns to be as attentive to the wind's moods as the sun's. More so, maybe. Old Sol, lazy in his power, contents himself with glaring when he's not winking behind the high haze or lolling on the horizon. But Master Ventus is a trickster born: with one hand he'll wipe the sweat from your brow, gentle as a mother soothing a fevered child, while the other steals all the humor from your cheeks. He'll lie quiet for days and then let rip, blowing umbrellas inside-out along the avenues with the same glee that sends kites soaring above the parks. The wise man knows not to draw his notice with prayers or abuse—the wise woman, to tie down her hat and weight her skirts.

Winry Rockbell's no fool: when the storm is up and all is on the hazard, she's not one to run before it, hatless or otherwise. That, she points out as the wind whistles down the canyon, she leaves to Ed, and look where it's gotten him, huh? Which sally the youngest State Alchemist in Amestrian history greets with nothing more than a grimace, being no fonder of cleaning sand out of his automail than she is. He follows her through a labyrinth of relatively sheltered back alleys, satisfied to wonder aloud what part of Atelier Garfiel's outstanding customer service requires their oft-proclaimed "best customer" to serve as beast of burden on supply runs. She admonishes him to act his age, not his height; he sputters wordlessly, his face reddening with more than windburn as she laughs.

And so it goes between them, this comfortable combat—tongues bated, hearts at ease. No williwaws of passion trouble these passages: he's promised, after all, not to make her cry except for joy. They walk together in the lee of their long friendship, shielded from upset and change alike. But the wind's a patient prankster—avoid him as you may, he'll catch you napping unless you forego sleep. Restless, he lets no one rest for long. Winry knows the city well, but all her careful detours must end at the intersection above the shop. She and Ed have no sooner turned that corner than the wind serves them up a faceful of grit.

Each.

Winry shrieks, Ed swears, and the derisive rattle of shutters and gutters against their moorings pursues mechanic and alchemist all the way to the atelier's side door. Dumping their packages in a heap under Garfiel's startled gaze, they stumble into the washroom off the workshop, banging elbows in their haste to reach the sink. "Don't rub your eyes!" Winry shouts.

"I know!" Ed snaps back.

His tear ducts have all but swamped his sight and he leaves them to it; this is hardly the first time something's blown up in his face. Snagging the stiff terry washcloth from its hook, he instead wipes the dirt from his mouth and nose. The vicious stinging has ebbed to an unpleasant itch by the time he carefully blots the moisture from his eyesockets. He pulls at his lashes in lieu of scratching and blinks his vision clear. Knowing it's best to occupy his hands with other things until the temptation to touch has passed, he turns to see how Winry's faring. "Are you all right?" he asks.

Since she's still contorted, grunting, over the basin, trying to duck her head under the open tap, he immediately bites his tongue and thrusts his palm into the stream of water to divert it toward her face. Disquietingly, she neither rebukes him for the comment nor thanks him for the help. "Ow," she moans. "Ow, ow, ow, ow, ow—damn!" she adds, but with altogether too little of her usual verve.

That's enough of that, Ed decides, never one to continue an experiment past the point of futility (at least by his own measurement of futility). "Here," he says, taking Winry by the shoulders and pushing her to a seat on the toilet. "Lean back and let me have a look. Which is it?"

Her eyes are screwed shut, lashes darkened with moisture and crows' feet traced with grime, like the wandering patterns drawn by secret water on cavern walls. She rests the crown of her skull against the tiles and clutches the edge of the toilet bowl for support. "The right," she answers. "My right."

"This one?" Ed touches the bone beneath it and she nods. As he gently pries the lids apart, she grimaces, teeth bared and breath hissing across her tongue, but he sees nothing embedded in the cornea: no need to run for the oculist. "It's okay," he says, relieved. "Tilt your head over and I'll wash it out."

It's another mark of Winry's distress that she does exactly as he asks, without cavil or cranky assertions of self-reliance—though Ed has to admit she seldom misjudges her own competence. He gives the tin cup from atop the medicine cabinet a good rinse and begins methodically but messily sluicing her eye clear. Water runs down her neck, sousing her shoulder and dribbling onto the floor. Recovering, she wriggles and complains, "Watch what you're doing!"

"Hold still," he orders, bracing her head with one hand as he refills the cup with the other. "And keep that eye open."

"I'm trying!" she replies and, suiting action to words, skewers him with a lopsided glower. He suppresses a smile (not altogether successfully) and douses her again before she can react.

A generous puddle is spreading around the base of the toilet by the time they agree he can stop. Winry dabs at her cheeks with a towel, attacks neck and ears more forcefully, and rubs without discernable effect (on her own person, at least) at the continent-shaped patch of damp on the breast of her blouse. "Damn," she mutters, flushing inexplicably pink.

He regards her sidelong as she passes him the towel. How someone who works through the summer's heat in a tube top and shorts can seem more thoroughly underclothed in a damp cotton shirt modestly provided with collar and sleeves is one of the great mysteries of fashion which neither of them has yet plumbed. Ed dries his hands, pulls his professional demeanor straight, and lifts Winry's chin for a final evaluation of his treatment.

Her pupils contract in the light from the fixture overhead, like pebbles sinking into blue water; the surrounding sclera are reddened deltas of irritated capillaries. He's well-traveled for his years, to the point where scenery bores him, but the planes of her face are a landscape as familiar as home—and thus, like all his boyhood haunts, worth re-exploring after a long absence. This vista has been weathered not only by sun and wind but by experience: freckles and small scars, but also those creases at the corner of mouth and eyes, tracks of wit and worry. She's free with the blame for her wrinkles; in some moods she assigns him the lot, a responsibility he strenuously rejects. And yet, there's something ... intriguing in the thought of leaving your mark on someone else, like building a cairn on a mountaintop or carving graffiti into a monument (Edward Elric was here ... )

He traces the orbital bone with his thumb from the bridge of her nose to the corner opposite; her lashes flicker in response. He leans closer, watching her eyes dilate once more as his shadow falls across them. "Well?" she asks after a few moments.

Ed draws his hand back quickly. "Uh, no problem," he answers.

She sighs, lids drooping. Released, he hesitates, then plants a swift, awkward peck where his thumb last rested. "No problem," he croaks again as her eyes spring open to stare at him. The universal anodyne for injury, that gesture, learned at their mothers' knees and employed on each other's spit-cleaned schoolyard scrapes until their classmates gleefully accused them of spreading cooties ... but surely they're both mature enough now to shrug off such teasing, aren't they?

At length Winry blinks and inhales a sniffle, or perhaps a stifled chuckle. The joke's on him, Ed realizes—a different joke: all his life he's wished for height, to stand before his opponents and watch them count his nose hairs. Now, gazing down at Winry's suffused and dirt-streaked face, he recognizes how awkward it is to be tall, how confining, how grotesquely exposed. A grain of dust can still blind a giant.

He pulls away; her hand closes on his arm as his head grazes the edge of the medicine cabinet. Thus arrested, he leans against the sink, calculating fruitlessly. Unless he destroys the plumbing, he can't transmute a hole in floor or wall large enough to permit his escape. Winry frowns at him with seemingly clinical interest. "Are you all right?" she asks.

"Fine," he mutters. There's nothing wrong with his legs, at least—a sidestep to the right and two paces back and he'd be out the door, if it weren't shut. Though he'd have to break her grip, which he doubts he can do without hurting her: she has the strength of her calling in her fingers and the persistence of rimrock in her heart.

(Of the softer soil eroding slowly beneath that protective layer, only she and the wind know, and Ed's been deaf to their whispered hints. But a blind man's hearing grows keener with use, his courage higher with each stride into the unseen. She's devoted almost half her life to working with the disabled; she knows there is a time for compassion and a time for challenge.)

She tugs him toward her. "Let me see."

He bends reluctantly, lids wide apart to speed her scrutiny. But she takes her time; his vision is beginning to blur with a return of tears when her eyes finally track downward. Blinking, his follow, and he sees her lips form the words Hold still and perhaps This won't ...

He's never sure, afterward, whether she says anything aloud before their mouths meet. The victorious tintinnabulation of his pulse overwhelms all other sounds—the clatter of the cup falling to the floor, the splash of water underfoot, the chink of his automail knee knocking against the toilet's porcelain bowl—

—but not, alas, Garfiel's polite rap and insinuating trill of "Are you two all right in there?" from the workshop.

Disentangling themselves, they call back "Yes!" in breathless unison. "Mop!" Winry adds in a squeak, ducking under Ed's arm to the door. She trails a hand down his rumpled sleeve as she goes and he grins—he can't help it, can't stop smirking even as he damns Garfiel's suggestive eyebrows and wonders how the hell he's going to counter whatever exaggerated rumors ("We just kissed, I swear!") reach his brother.

The wind will carry those rumors gladly. Master Ventus has no pity on the weak: he drives them where they won't be led and dizzies them till they dance to his measure and laughs as they fall. But the strong feign pliance before him and so turn his power to their own purposes, teaching stout oak some of willow's wisdom when the canvas tautens on the yards. Thus flattered, in all but his most overbearing moods he delights to serve his canny votaries, turning their mills and propelling their ships. Fine flour and safe harbor are not his gifts, but the love-labor of humanity.

Yet he can also be generous, offering freely what no one may demand.

Ed's tidying away the shopping and parrying Garfiel's conversational thrusts with grunts when he hears the first faint ticks against the windows, furtive as the pebbles tossed by a country swain to announce his nocturnal arrival. Unchallenged, the shower grows bolder, until by the time Winry emerges from the washroom it's flinging itself with a joyful roar onto the roof to rush clattering down the gutters into the rain barrels. Garfiel runs from light to light, drawing down the storm sashes; through panes blurred grey by spattering waves of downpour Ed sees the neighboring vendors struggling to dismantle their sidewalk displays before the merchandise is ruined or swept away. Winry joins him to watch the show, grounding the mop head-down in its wheeled bucket. Her still-damp shoulder brushes his; he surreptitiously leans into it while Garfiel chatters out his sly relief that the long drought has ended.

Chortling, the wind pours a munificent libation for him onto the thirsty earth.