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Desert Warmth

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The sky was a blue so deep Winry felt like she could drown in it. She could have kept watching it for hours, but it was way too hot for that and she had way too much to do. She wiped sweat off her brow and went back into her tent. The comparative coolness that came just from being out of the sun was a thing to be savored, and she gave herself a moment. Winry had grown up under the mildest of climates. Even if it had been quite a bit hotter in Rush Valley than in Resembool, she still wasn’t used to desert heat.

Scar came in a few minutes later. He merely nodded at her and then started cleaning up around the tent with a quiet efficiency that had surprised her at first. She wouldn’t have thought that his hands were efficient at anything but killing.

She’d been in Nelut almost two months, now: it was one of the villages that their new government had put forward as an attempt to start rebuilding Ishval. The idea was that, eventually, the Ishvalan survivors who languished in the ghettos would be relocated to one of the newly rebuilt villages in their native land. The land still technically belonged to Amestris, but new laws were in the making that should give the population a measure of autonomy. Probably not enough, not at first, but progress was progress. For the moment, most of the volunteers who’d come here to help lived in tents, and the atmosphere was one of prolonged camping. Winry didn’t mind—it reminded her of camping out as a child with Ed and Al, sleeping under the stars and feeling like adventurers.

“Miss Winry?” someone called shyly from outside her tent.

“In here!”

A young woman stepped inside, stopping a moment at the entrance until she got used to the relative darkness. The hem of her skirt was white with dust, and one of the two feet that poke out from under it was polished wood.

“Is your leg troubling you, Zaahira?” Winry asked. She gestured for the girl to come and sit on the wooden table at the center of the tent. “Come in, come in.”

“Just a little,” Zaahira murmured, like her pain shamed her, but she hopped onto the table without Winry having to tell her.

Scar left the tent, probably out of consideration for Zaahira’s modesty. Once he was gone Zaahira hitched up her skirt so Winry could look at her leg, and Winry couldn’t help but be pleased at the show of trust. A month ago, the Ishvalans had looked at her blond hair and blue eyes and easily burned skin with distrust. They were wary of her help and were shy with their bodies. Here, deep into the desert, Winry couldn’t use the automails that she loved so much because they would only burn the patients. She had to use wood or ceramic, and the technical aspect of her work was a lot less complex. When she’d told Garfield she wanted to come to Ishval once she’d finished her internship with him, he’d claimed that she would get bored with working on such basic prostheses. She did miss automails and couldn’t imagine doing that kind of work all her life, but it wasn’t without gratifications.

“I just need to readjust it, and then it shouldn’t hurt as much.” Winry looked up from the leg to Zaahira and smiled at her. “It will take no time at all.”

When Winry was done with Zaahira, Scar came back and started sweeping. He’d shown up not long after Winry herself had arrived, claiming he wanted to help. She’d been uneasy with the offer, but hadn’t felt like she could refuse him. At first the atmosphere between them had been tensed, charged with their common bloody past, but after a while Winry had gotten used to his presence. No task was too menial for him and he was quick at work. They didn’t talk more than necessary, which had suited Winry perfectly at the beginning. Now, though, it felt like this silence was an obstacle she didn’t know how to overcome. It seemed too weird that after everything that had happened they could just keep working side-by-side in silence.

A slow trickle of patients kept her busy throughout the afternoon. Many of them were extensively burned, and the long-healed wounds had left horrific scars. It was a terrible history that Winry could read in those scars, one that she’d known about, but that had never hit her as strongly before she’d seen the injuries with her own eyes, as well as the destroyed buildings from the ruins they camped next to.

“I’m done,” she told a middle-aged woman whose knee articulation she’d just fixed. “Go easy on it, okay?”

“Thanks,” the woman said.

She hadn’t said her name, and Winry hadn’t seen her before, but that wasn’t unusual. The same small core of people worked at the camp, but many more came and went. But instead of leaving the woman kept staring at Winry with curious intensity, like maybe she wanted to add something.

“Can I help you with anything else?” Winry asked her gently.

She’d found that sometimes people kept smaller issues from her, out of a sense that they would be bothering her if they came for more than one thing. The woman shook her head, though.

“They say your name is Rockbell. Is that right?” she asked.

“Yes.”

“The doctors’ daughter?”

Winry’s heart started to pound harder. “I’m their daughter, yes.”

“I met your parents.” The woman grabbed Winry’s hand, so suddenly it startled her. Her grip was strong, and her palm warm and dry. “They would be proud of their daughter.”

The woman exited the tent then, leaving a stupefied Winry in her wake. She heard a clunk and whipped her head around, in time to see Scar bend over to pick up one of Winry’s tools he’d knocked off her workbench.

“I need to—” he said, and then looked at a loss for a way to finish his sentence. She could see the white of his eyes very clearly in the semi-darkness.

“We’re out of tea,” Winry said, hearing herself speak like it was someone else. “Maybe see if you can get us some.”

“Right.”

Once he was gone, Winry breathed a sigh of relief. She hadn’t met any of her parents’ former patients since she’d gotten here, although she probably should have expected it would happen eventually. A lot of confusing emotions were swirling around in her mind—surprise, grief, and pride—and to have Scar witness the scene only added to the confusion. She didn’t mind his presence, and didn’t feel angry at him anymore—or at least, she didn’t feel the kind of burning rage that had made her grab a gun and point it at him. She felt a rush of shame, suddenly; had she forgotten what he’d done to her parents? Had she—no, no, no. She buried her face in her hands and took a deep breath. Nothing constructive laid down that trail of thoughts. Her parents had dedicated their lives to saving people; they wouldn’t want to be avenged.

It was during moments like this that she missed Ed—and Al, too, although not quite in the same way—the most fiercely. She liked that he was so curious about the world, and she wouldn’t have been able to come in the desert with him anyway, but it didn’t keep her from just wishing he were here, sometimes. Al wrote to her monthly, like clockwork, but Ed wasn’t as good about writing regularly. His letters, though, when she got them, were long and rambling, and never failed to make her smile. She wondered what Ed would say about the fact that Scar was giving her a hand.

When Scar came back, Winry had regained control over her emotions. She’d done what she always did when she felt out of sort, which was to throw herself whole-heartedly into tinkering. She had settled at her workbench, working on her pet project: trying to adapt automail so it could withstand high temperatures, in order for Ishvalans—and Ed too, of course—to be able to wear it in the desert. She’d tested various materials, trying to find something that would have the resistance and malleability she needed, but wouldn’t overheat. The problem soothed her feelings and focused her mind. As Ed would say, there was nothing like a puzzle to make the rest of the world disappear.

She heard the sound of the tent’s door being flapped open. She knew it was Scar because he didn’t announce himself, but rummaged around the tent like she wasn’t there. She heard a series of clunking sounds, and then water being poured, and finally got curious enough to turn around and look at what he was doing.

“You’re making tea,” she said dumbly, watching him heat water over the small stove she’d brought with her.

He kept his back on her and said, “You told me to go get tea.”

It had been hours ago, and she’d honestly forgotten about it.

“Have you made any progress?” he asked.

“Huh?”

This time Scar angled toward her, slanting a look at her over his shoulder. “Your research. The heat-resistant automail you’re trying to make.”

“Ah, uh, well… It’s not going very well, to be honest. I’m lacking the right materials to properly experiment.”

“Maybe this isn’t the best place to do it.”

Winry felt very cold despite the heat filtering in from outside. “Is that—a way to tell me you wish I’d leave?”

He stilled, the line of his broad shoulders going taut. “This wasn’t what I meant.”

“Okay.”

“I wouldn’t presume to tell you what to do.”

“No, of course, I just thought—”

“If I wanted you to leave, why would have I come to work with you?”

Why, indeed? She’d never asked him why he’d sought her out. He’d been there, and she’d struggled with herself to accept it, but had never wondered at his motivations.

“Alright,” she said.

By the time tea was ready it was cool enough for them to take it outside. They dragged their chairs out and settled by the tent’s entrance. Down the slope they could see the stone ruins of the village in the process of being rebuilt and the chaos of tents that had clustered around it. Echoes from the workers’ voices drifted up to them, cries and calls and laughter. This time of the day, when the sun was setting behind the rocky horizon, the camp was actually buzzing with activity. During the day it got so hot in the sun that you could feel your blood boil in your veins, so it was during those precious hours at dawn and before night, when there was daylight but the temperature was bearable, that most of the construction work was done.

Winry sat back in her chair with a sigh, scratching dead skin off her burned nose. The tea was strong and bitter, but she’d gotten used to it by now.

“Why?” she asked.

“Why, what?”

“Why did you kill them?”

She was deliberately not watching for his reaction, looking instead at the purple shadows that stretched over the hard stone ground, but she heard him swallow hard. He’d never offered any explanation or excuse for his actions, but she thought she’d come to know him a little bit, and she couldn’t reconcile the man she knew with one that would kill the people who’d saved him.

“I woke up,” he said slowly, “mad from pain and fear. My arm was—they’d replaced my arm with my brother’s.” He rubbed his tattooed forearm. “I didn’t know where I was. I didn’t know who they were. All I knew was that they were—”

Winry sucked in a breath. “—that they were Amestrians.”

“I’m not making excuses for what I did.”

“I know.”

“Does it make you feel better, knowing this?”

She looked down at the tea inside her tin mug, almost as dark as coffee. She didn’t know how to feel about the fact that her parents’ deaths had been almost accidental. It’d been a stroke of bad luck, something that could maybe have been avoided if they’d managed to talk their patient down. She shook her head, feeling silly. Not every death had to be meaningful; what mattered was that their lives had meaning. People were alive because of them—that woman from earlier, and Scar himself. Many more wouldn’t be alive if not for Scar’s actions on the Promised Day.

“Yuriy and Sarah,” she said.

“What?”

“It was my parents’ names: Dr. Yuriy and Sarah Rockbell.”

Scar looked strangely open and vulnerable for an instant, like she’d caught him with his guard down. Then he looked away and said, “My brother’s name was Fahim.”

Winry blinked. “Um, okay. Why are you—”

“In our culture names are a gift from God. It’s a great show of trust to share them.”

“Oh. I didn’t know that. I hope I didn’t—”

His lips curled into something that looked suspiciously close to a smile. “I’m not offended, and I know you didn’t mean it that way. I just wanted to be fair.”

“And what’s your name?” she asked before she could catch herself. Then she bit her lip, realizing what she was asking for. “Sorry. It's not for me to know.”

“It’s alright. I renounced my name, so I don’t have one anymore.”

That sounded terribly sad, and Winry felt her eyes prickle. She squeezed them shut, willing the tears away. She wouldn’t do what she’d done with Ed and Al, crying tears that weren’t hers. She was done with that. She didn’t want to dwell on the past, but rather aim for the future.

“I’m glad I came here,” she said.

“So am I.”

Together they watched the sun set over the desert, silently enjoying the shades of yellow and orange it painted on the sky.