Author: Yellow Mask PM
Part two of the 'Equivalent Exchange' trilogy. Each night, Ed earns. Each night, he kills. His soul for Winry's safety...slight Edwin, mature themes, very dark.Rated: Fiction M - English - Angst - Edward E. & Winry R. - Words: 4,859 - Reviews: 30 - Favs: 38 - Follows: 4 - Published: 07-09-07 - Status: Complete - id: 3645386
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
By Yellow Mask
Spoilers: Only up to Chapter 56, really, but makes more sense if you've read up to 70.
Disclaimer: I do not own FMA.
The instructions are simple; name, place and time. Three pieces of information, never anything more and never anything less – after all, who tells a dog why it's performing tricks? A master only needs his obedience, not his comprehension.
Al says nothing as Ed sheds his distinctive clothing and dons a less recognisable outfit, like a chameleon changing colours to disappear into the bland mass of people thronging the streets in the early evening. They're like a flock of sheep just turned loose in the fields, milling without point or purpose or thought to where they're going.
Unlike Ed. He wishes he didn't have point and purpose to where he's going, but he does. He wishes he had no thought in his head, but he does.
He has too many thoughts, mainly revolving around one concept, like a multitude of planets about a single sun.
Who is this Richard Stoneson? What has he done for Kimblee to deem him an obstacle? What has he done for Kimblee to deem him a large enough obstacle to require bringing out Ed's collar and chain?
What has he done to deserve death?
Ed isn't stupid – he knows whatever this man has done is an action far from deserving death. Those Kimblee deems obstacles are always those with integrity and intelligence – those in power who cannot be bought off or lied to.
Those that hinder the homunculi's goal.
And in this obscene game of chess, it is Ed who must move forward and knock those pieces off the board. It disgusts him, this far-reaching game of the homunculi, where no one knows if they are pawn, knight or queen.
It disgusts him, but he has to play. Like the dog on the too-short leash, dragged back and forth with little say in what he does or does not do, his choices still present but so far out of reach they might as well be non-existent. He had freedom once – he was collared to the military, true, but not leashed, and while he always returned...he always had a choice.
Now, he does not. Because his leash is far more than a strip of leather and fabric; his leash is a living, breathing person.
Winry Rockbell. His mechanic, his friend, someone who holds those titles proudly yet somehow manages to be more than them. Like some random algebra expression, Winry never seems to fit just one name, never seems to stay compartmentalised, no matter how much Ed thinks it over or what he tells himself. She is water on wet ink, smudging and blurring the lines, running out and away before you can contain her. A person who flares into someone's life like a firework burst, the force of her so brilliant and blinding they are left gazing after her long after she has spiraled on through the world, astounded and overwhelmed.
A person made into an object by their threats, her safety made into both reward and punishment at the same time. They drag her from place to place on their chessboard, dangle her in front of his eyes like a juicy bone before the dog he has become.
'Look what we have...don't you want this? Well, you'll have to earn it.'
And Ed earns. Each time a slip of paper is pushed under his door, he earns. Or at least, he tries to; he knows there is no way for him to earn enough to buy her safety once and for all, but still he tries. He knows they are playing him like a violin, but still he tries.
Still he trades, night after night fulfilling this gruesome transmutation.
To gain, something of equal value must be lost...
The house looks warm, a stark contrast to the frost settling in the marrow of his bones. The chill he has to feel, the numbness he has to embrace to be able to force himself to do this – it's like self-hypnosis, fooling himself into becoming detached, lies to pile on lies to pile on lies.
He wonders if he can even tell what the truth is now, after so many deceptions.
Ed stares at the light in the window, flickering like a poor quality shadow puppet against the glass. Perhaps a fire's been lit.
Ed's stomach rolls in protest as the cold, sick-chilled part of his mind notes that fire is a useful way of covering up murder. His face twists as he approaches the house, glued to the shadows, every sound near-deafening as he listens for silence.
He hopes Richard Stoneson doesn't have a family, he hopes he doesn't resist, he hopes, he hopes...
Funny – he thought that, by now, he would have learned hopes are pointless.
It's terrifying how easy it is to kill. Terrifying in the way that some things are; they don't make you afraid of anything around you...they make you afraid of yourself. Horrified of yourself.
It's easy to kill, Ed knows. The hardest parts of killing someone is not the death itself...it's what happens around it. The borders of the act, the before and after, the prologue and epilogue of the book of the bloodstained.
Ed feels sick before the act and sick at the end, but the actual instant when moves for the killing blow and can almost feel life flee their body...
Nothing. Emptiness. Like a bleak, frozen wasteland. Like a barren woman who longs for children. Nothing but the dust of broken promises and shattered dreams.
Ed can still smell the blood in the air.
The house burns behind him, flames leaping high, roaring like a feral animal unleashed from its cage. It devours the wood and clay of the house like a starved tiger, surging and crackling almost in time with the neighbours' screams.
He slinks through the shadows like a cat stealing sausages from the kitchen. Except his crime has cost lives, not dinner. The flames bellow and scream behind him, howling his condemnation at his retreating back.
'Murderer...' the night whispers in his ear, like a spider's venom slowly crawling through his veins. 'Murderer...murderer...murderer...'
The smell of smoke that clings to his clothes and hair almost feels like justice – as the house burns, he can almost feel his own soul withering in heat of a different kind. No, not heat – it can't be called heat. His soul isn't burning...it's freezing. Freezing, numbing, paralysed and fading, dying even as the cold seeps into every pore of his skin, until he believes he can feel icicles form on his very bones.
Hell isn't made of flames, but of sharp frozen ice.
Funny...Ed's never really believed in hell...and even if he's in it now, he's there by choice. He's been there since the first night Kimble made him his dog.
The moment the nameless soldier informed him Kimblee wanted to see him, Ed knew nothing good could come of their exchange. Like a master chess player against an amateur, whenever Kimblee makes a move it is always to benefit himself in some way – there are no defensive strategies, he doesn't bother to block his opponent, he simply strikes for the heart like a poisoned dagger flung from an assassin's hand.
Kimblee had been calm, frank, almost disinterested as he explained the situation to him. But past the cool facade, Ed had seen the sadistic glimmer in the depth of his eyes, the malicious quirk to his lips that suggested the older man was deriving far more enjoyment from the conversation than he was letting on.
He didn't waste words or breath, just told Ed that a certain man had been giving them problems, and the young alchemist could either eliminate him or they would find another to do the deed and frame Winry for the murder, much as they had Lieutenant Ross.
"Tell me, do you know what happens to a pretty civilian woman in a military prison?" Kimblee had asked, the salacious tilt to his mouth not quite a leer, but not quite a smirk either.
That look had been all Ed needed to understand what Kimblee was insinuating. Something clenched and knotted in his stomach, like writhing ball of spiked chains.
"I might find the time to pay her a visit myself," Kimblee mused, then laughed like a hyena at Ed's stricken face.
There really had been no choice to make. Ed supposed there was a choice on the most basic level, but as far as he was concerned, there really wasn't a decision to be made.
His soul for Winry's safety.
Payment. Fair trade.
The fire was a lucky break – he's changed clothes and is back almost two hours before Kimblee expects him. Ed almost laughs at the way his mind phrases it; as though he's early for a business meeting or managerial luncheon. As though he hasn't just gone out and murdered another for a cause he despises, as casually as another might go for an evening stroll. As though he hasn't – once again – decided to place Winry above the lives and dreams of others...
How can he say he's for the people when he keeps placing one life above the others? But when it comes down to it, when the paper slides under the door and Kimblee and all he represents demand action...it is a surprisingly easy decision. Horrifyingly easy, to choose Winry as opposed to dozens – maybe hundreds – of other lives. Others who are probably just important to other people as Winry is to him.
Still, at the same time he isn't quite so surprised as he should be. Like hearing that a friend will do something extraordinarily humiliating on a dare; you know it's going to happen, but it still startles you when they actually follow through.
Winry above the world...
He's always known he is a selfish man at heart.
Ed pauses in the corridor outside Kimblee's room – in some dank hotel that has crude words in the name and was probably last employed as a brothel – his hand hovering over the doorknob like a fly over a carcass.
He hears Kimblee's voice inside the room. Kimblee is the only one speaking, but he can hear the protesting of ancient floorboards and the shifting of another body in the room. There is someone else in the room with Kimblee...
On the one night he came back from his soul-blackening deeds early.
Suspicion slides into his mind like a repellent slug, leaving a trail of slime through thoughts and actions. Instinct drives Ed behind the corner of the corridor, crouching low to the floor and leaning ever-so slightly around the wall, hidden by a small table with a phone atop – like a toddler playing hide and seek, watching to see if his playmate is counting properly. Except this is so far from childish games he wants to laugh.
The door opens, and a flash of blonde hair almost blinds him.
It's Winry. Winry, standing outside Kimblee's door, her eyes as empty as a sun-blasted desert, as though her soul has been ripped from her body. Her clothes are rumpled, as though they were folded clumsily, creases lining it like a roadmap where just a few hours before there had been smooth cloth.
Something coils in Ed's belly like a snake about to strike. Every instinct he has ever possessed is telling him what he is seeing now, in these few seconds...is the most horrifying thing he has ever seen in his life, including the Gate, including the hideous creature he and Al made when they tried human transmutation. Though he hadn't thought it possible he feels his body grow still colder, ice crawling through arteries and organs, until he wonders why his breath doesn't steam in the air in front of him.
Winry is quivering like a startled deer, desperate to run but not daring to. Kimblee leans out around the door jamb like a reptile basking in the sun; lean and comfortable and exultant. His eyes rake Winry as though she's a banquet laid out in front of him that he's deciding how to eat. Appreciative, wondering...
"Wear blue next time."
Something sparks in Ed's gut, like Mustang's gloves struck a little too hard. Why is Kimblee telling Winry what to wear? The sparks freeze, becoming something dark and slimy that tangles in his veins and makes his heartbeat roll like thunder.
Winry's eyes flash, but it is not the lightning strike it once would have been. Now it is flickering – a candle in a tornado – almost burned out and only just clinging to life, though death seems inevitable.
But Kimblee sees it too, and crushes it beneath the steel of his words, like an errant cockroach beneath a military boot. "Perhaps I have been mistaken...do you want to break our deal?"
Ed can almost see panic flare across Winry's skin, her desperation written in white-rimmed eyes and trembling lips as she shakes her head. Kimblee smiles, the kind of smile that implies a hundred things things but names none directly, the kind of smile that curdles in Ed's stomach.
The door closes, the despised man slinking back into the shadows Ed sometimes fancies he was spawned from. Winry turns, her steps hurrying but stilted – as though she is trying to limp on both legs – as she gallops down the stairs, a whisk of blonde hair and a clatter of boots the only thing marking her passing. A wild filly bolting through a meadow, leaving barely a rustle of grass to testify to her headlong flight.
Ed follows, a shadow amongst shadows.
She looks like she's going to cry, and it disturbs Ed more than anything else he has learned this night. Winry never looks like she's going to cry...she either cries or she doesn't. No middle ground. But now...
Now, her lips are a thin, savage line, her eyes are tightened at the corners like elastic stretched too far...but at the same time, they are as dry as the throat of a man abandoned in a desert. Ed wants to go to her, to take her by the shoulders and spin her around and demand an explanation – why is she consorting with Kimblee, of all people? – but something about her haunted, broken gait demands he do nothing but follow her. Morbid curiosity driving him onwards, wanting to learn of what he has just seen without disturbing the splintered edges of a woman pushed to her limit.
He wonders if this is what she's been doing on those late-night walks Al is always mentioning. He says Winry leaves a little after he does, returns before him, then spends almost-hours in the shower, as though she were out mud-wrestling instead of...whatever it is she's been doing with Kimblee.
These snapshots of information tumble through his mind like jigsaw pieces, landing in a tangled, scattered mess that makes no sense no matter which way he looks at it. He knows he needs more information, but it's not like he can open a book and find the answers he seeks there.
But something shimmers in the depths of his mind, something with a malicious, cats-eye gleam in the dark, something that whispers it knows what is going on in a voice that streaks poison across his thoughts.
He's inside her room within two heartbeats. She slides her key into the lock with hands that shake, and he steals up behind her like an attacker, waiting for the moment when she opens the door...
And then he simply moves behind her and into the room, with Winry squeaking and stumbling as she registers the presence of the body behind her.
She turns, and Ed is hoping, is silently pleading, she'll shout and rant and throw a wrench, because that would mean everything was normal, everything was alright...
Would have meant she was alright...
But there is nothing but Winry's wide blue eyes – like startled blue-jays – and her erratic breathing, sounding more like a hummingbird's wings than gasping. She stumbles back, her gaze jumping around the room like a butterfly against a glass jar...
As though she's been trapped. As though she's been caught. Like a child sneaking cookies before dinner.
Except fraternizing with the enemy is far more serious and cutting than stealing sweets.
Ed does not waste time with superfluous words. "Winry...I saw you in the hotel."
The blood leaves Winry's face like water sucked down a drain. She makes a noise like a frightened child, part whimper, part cry. Like a beaten puppy, like a flogged kitten, something small and helpless in the face of brutal truth and cruel reality.
"What were you doing there?" Ed's voice is tight, but something keeps him from shouting. A small, sickening spiral of doubt – Winry's not betraying he and Al...
It's something far worse.
He tries to ignore it – what could be worse than Winry betraying them? He tries to tell himself it's the only conclusion that can be reached, the only one that makes sense, because to not believe it is to look for more answers, and to look for more answers is to listen to the venom-soaked voice in his head...the voice that promises knowledge to shatter him like a crystal vase at the end of a five-floor drop.
He steps towards Winry, and she flinches back as though he raised a whip. She nearly trips over her own feet, clumsy and uncoordinated and terrified, her hip hits the edge of the bed and she falls ungracefully back to the mattress. Her feet still rest on the floor, but with her knees bent and her body lying on the bed, it almost seems a pose of relaxation. But the widened eyes and quivering muscles make a mockery of the word.
Ed isn't sure what he would have said next. Because when she shifts, trying to get up and somehow stagger her way back to equal footing, her skirt crumples, hiking up her legs unintentionally and there's...there's something...
A small trickle of fluid, no larger than a teardrop, running down the inside of her thigh. A strangely thick, opaque white liquid, mixed with pinkish swirls that look like diluted blood...
Something tightens in his chest, and he's suddenly gasping for air. Ed steps forward, his hand involuntarily reaching out, half-expecting a slap but mesmerised by the glisten of the bead that seems to have soup-like consistency. He touches it – surprised when Winry doesn't protest his rather intimate contact – his white gloved fingertips smeared with the damning liquid. He rubs his fingers together – it's thick and sticky and it smells like...
The voice is howling in the back of his mind, beginning to peek over the horizon like a dawn he wishes would never come.
Ed looks up.
Winry's eyes are still dry, no hint of tears, but there is something sharp and ragged behind the azure veil, as though behind them something small and frail and beautiful is screaming, bleeding and dying in silence.
Realisation slams into him like a bullet, a jet of red-hot awareness into the ice he has become, burrowing into his chest like a disease and tearing something within.
Ed has never believed in God, but in that moment his first prayer is torn from him, a wild, half-formed thought that is not praise but plea, ripped from him in this moment of abject horror.
The moment of impact has numbed him; he doesn't feel the floor beneath him, doesn't feel the breath that freezes in his throat nor the blood that burns his veins. He feels nothing, knows nothing, save for the small stain on his gloved fingertips – this irrefutable evidence of...
The question of consent never crosses his mind. Winry's broken eyes and haunted body tell him before the inquiry is even a flicker of a thought.
Suddenly unable to bear to look at the proof of her defilement, Ed tears the glove from his hand so violently the fabric rips. He knows his flesh hand should burn with the pain of the cloth tearing across tender nerves and skin, but though he sees a red mark rising on his hand he feels nothing; no pain, no discomfort, not even the change in temperature as his hand is bared to the cool air of the room. There is nothing but the raw, all-consuming need to fling the tainted cloth as far from him as humanly possible.
So he does. The glove hits the opposite wall and falls to the floor, and Ed has already dismissed it from his mind. His eyes turn back to Winry, and for long seconds they stare at each other, each in utter horror, each for different reasons.
Ed knows he should say something. Winry's eyes tell him she is terrified of his reaction; he should speak to her, hold her, should soothe her, reassure her...
But he can't. If he speaks he will scream. If he moves he will rip the room apart. He has never felt rage like this in his entire life; this aching, empty, howling pain, that demands something suffer as this terrible, rotting knowledge has made him suffer.
He reins himself in as he would rein in a bucking horse, but with much more effort. He can't seethe now, he can't hate now, he needs something to focus on to restore himself...
The word is like flash of colour to man who has never seen anything but black and white. Winry is more important that his horror. Winry is more important than his anger.
Winry is more important, period.
She bits her lip, hard, so hard Ed is surprised she doesn't draw blood. But he doesn't let the disturbing sight deter him, and continues.
She looks up at him, all the horrors of the world in her gaze, and it's all he can do not to drag her into his arms. But he has no idea how she will react to being touched, after...
"He said..." her voice cracks and crumbles, splintering beneath the weight of her hideous secret, like a dry lamb bone in the jaws of a wolf. "He told me...if I..."
She skims the word like a pebble over a black pond but Ed's disgust can fill in the blanks.
"...then he wouldn't...wouldn't make you a dog of the military...wouldn't make you kill people..."
The world around him lurches so violently Ed fears he may throw up. Winry had submitted to Kimblee because he'd promised to keep his – his, Edward Elric's! – hands free of blood? Some emotion too potent to be called fury, too nauseating to be called horror, rises in his throat to choke off the shriek that wants to emerge.
Winry let Kimblee rape her to keep him from killing. He had killed for Kimblee to keep Winry safe.
Kimblee betrayed them both.
Ed is given no time to dissect that thought, because suddenly Winry is against him, desperate and distressed and so terrified it breaks his heart. She clutches onto the lapels of his coat like they're the only ropes standing between her and a bottomless abyss, her face buried and hidden in his shirt, refusing to see his expression.
And she's crying. Finally, she's crying.
"Don't hate me..." he can make out between her desperate gulps for air and her strangling sobs. "Don't hate me...please, don't hate me...please, Ed..."
Ed moves then, gripping her almost violently, trying to encircle her so completely within his arms nothing and no one can ever hurt her again. Hate her? She's just told him she surrendered herself to violation and degradation in an effort to keep the tattered remnants of his conscience clean...
Even as he despairs, some part of Ed ruefully acknowledges Winry's loyalty is part of the reason he loves her so much. Though right now, he desperately wishes she wasn't quite so loyal or quite so self-sacrificing.
He supposes that was the reason he leapt to the conclusion she had betrayed him. He wanted to – the mind would rather believe unpleasant fiction than horrific truth. He would rather believe Winry betrayed him than that she allowed herself to be violated in his name.
"I don't hate you..." It's all Ed can manage, his voice trembling and quivering like a baby bird in a cold wind. "I don't hate you...I couldn't hate you, Winry...never hate you..."
Then, in a flash of remembrance that is a shaft of pain in his chest, Ed's mind flashes back to the pinkish tinge on his glove.
"Winry...are you...okay?" He wonders why, at times, his mouth seems to move without the permission of his brain. At the moment, asking Winry if she's okay seems on par with asking a deaf person if they can hear you. "I mean...there was blood..."
"I...bleed sometimes...when he's...rough..."
Ed can practically taste her shame in the soft breaths that puff against his chest. Something roars in his chest like a starved wolf, roars and howls and demands to be fed Kimblee's blood.
He holds her a little tighter and tries to speak around the splintered glass of his heart. "Do you need to...see a doctor...or something...?"
Winry shakes her head, her hair whipping against his arms like the soft leaves of a willow. "I don't think so...it...it usually stops."
"Okay..." Ed breathes, his lungs shuddering. Some part of him wants to bundle Winry in a coat and drag her to the hospital, but he makes no move to do so. He won't force her. She's had enough decisions forced on her for a lifetime.
"I think I want to have a shower now," Winry murmurs, her voice so tight he can feel it quiver.
Releasing her is the hardest thing Ed has ever had to do. She steps back and wraps her arms around herself, her fingers rubbing circles on her arm, an unconsciously soothing gesture, as though she doesn't even trust herself to hold her. She becomes aware of his scrutiny, tries to reassure him with a smile, and the effort in it breaks Ed's heart all over again. Winry has always been self-assured and confident, loud and almost brash, but now...as she disappears into the bathroom her movements seem almost timid. Like a vole feeding in an open field, twitching and quivering as it scans the skies, waiting for the hawk to descend.
Ed sits on the bed and stares at the bathroom door, listening to the shower as piece after piece clicks into place, revealing a picture that turns his stomach. How many times has Al told him of Winry's late-night walks? How many times has his brother commented on Winry's overlong use of the shower?
How long has this been going on, right in front of his eyes?
There is a sharp pain in his chest every time he breathes, and Ed wonders if it's rage at Kimblee or sorrow for Winry that's causing it. His lungs expand again and he welcomes the pain even as he welcomes the toxic hiss in the back of his mind, quietly whispering of what he must do now.
He waits for it to come to him, sitting motionless and silent, as though the message is being transmitted in morse code. He waits, and like the shark to the bloodtrail, like the hunter to the trap, it comes.
Kimblee must pay.
In the darkness of Ed's soul, the monster smiles. The monster Kimblee created when he first demanded he kill, the monster whose implacable wrath Kimblee earned the minute his hand touched Winry's naked body.
The monster who will stop at nothing to let Kimblee feel the ravaging touch of vengeance.
Ed's eyes harden to polished brass.
In this world, everything comes down to Equivalent Exchange. And to break these laws...
Is to pay a very dear price.
AN: As usual, thanks goes to the world's most wonderful beta, LaughingAstarael.