Author: Yellow Mask PM
The final part of the Equivalent Exchange trilogy. In the end, Equivalent Exchange bought them nothing but aching bodies and bruised souls...slight Edwin, mature themes, very dark.Rated: Fiction M - English - Angst - Edward E. & Winry R. - Words: 4,585 - Reviews: 31 - Favs: 43 - Follows: 3 - Published: 07-21-07 - Status: Complete - id: 3671078
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
By Yellow Mask
Spoilers: Only up to chapter 56, but makes more sense if you've read up to 70.
Disclaimer: I do not own FMA.
They discuss it coolly, they discuss it calmly. Like husband and wife discussing a divorce, a stilted conversation sown with averted glances and hesitating voices. Dancing around a subject they don't want to speak of, but know they must.
Ed slumps against the wall, reluctant to encroach upon his partner's personal space, dressed in his usual clothes, one hand lacking a glove, his face tight and carefully expressionless, his body hunched as though to melt into the wall and disappear. Winry sits on the bed, wrapped in a bulky nightgown overlaying her thick pyjamas, layers and layers of cloth wrapped over her to hide her body, to conceal the bruises...to hide herself. Both have their faces averted slightly from the other like roosting owls, as though they can't bear to catch the other's eye and see their own pain mirrored there.
They talk, their voices so calm and distant they might have been discussing the weather or a new adjustment made to his automail. They talk as though they are Ed and Winry; stubborn alchemist and determined mechanic. They talk as though they are not Ed and Winry; murdering man and raped woman. They talk as though they are planning a trip to the market.
They talk as though they are not planning murder.
Ed had thought it over, all the long hours Winry remained in the shower – settling for scrubbing Kimblee off her skin if she could not scour his mark from her soul – turning it over and over in his mind like a toddler with a shiny toy. Or an assassin with a new weapon.
How could he tell Winry Kimblee had forced him to kill with her as a hostage? How could he open his mouth and say her sacrifice had been meaningless? How could he tell Winry the bargain she sealed in her heart's blood had been thrown to the dogs like a scrap of worthless meat?
But he had found the strength – from where, Ed supposed he would never know – and let the words ring out into the air like a funeral bell as soon as she stepped from the bathroom.
And those few sentences had destroyed Winry's world. Her body had gone numb, her limbs cold, the awful truth of the web they were caught in like cold metal against her flesh, like the first brush of the executioner's axe. Her mind shuddered beneath the weight of it, creaking and groaning like planks of wood trying to support a boulder.
Resignation choked her. Hopelessness engulfed him. Despair drowned them both.
Her body for Ed's soul. His soul for Winry's safety
Payment. Fair Trade.
Save that there was no Equivalent Exchange. Not here. They had lost and they had not gained. They had paid and they had not received. They had sold and they had not bought.
They had lost, they had paid, they had sold...for nothing.
His conscience shredded...for nothing. Her body desecrated...for nothing.
Nothing but bleeding sorrows and secret agonies and the ashes of what they were. Nothing but pain.
It will be done quickly, and it will be done quietly. Like a ferret slipping into the rabbit's burrow, silent and deadly save for the rabbit's final scream when the predator strikes.
They both agree on this, the airy room stifling as a pillow pressed across their faces as they plan every action down to the finest detail. Like a general marshaling an army to war or a piano tuner with a particularly delicate instrument – everything must be perfect if they hope to emerge triumphant.
Winry tries not to look at his hands – the hands he so-recently told her have torn more than one man apart – and tries not to imagine blood dripping down those gentle fingers like spilled wine. Ed tries not to look at her wrists – at the splotches of blue and purple ringing them like obscene jewels – and tries not to imagine Kimblee's hand squeezing those fine-boned wrists until the capillaries burst beneath the skin like pricked balloons.
It's so much easier to remain calm when you pretend you're the only victim.
They discussed what had happened calmly, levelly, comparing dates and times like highschool friends trying to find a class in common on their timetable. Winry will look back on it later, her medical mind concluding they were in a state of emotional shock – only with complete icy numbness could they talk so calmly, so disinterestedly, of what they had endured.
They took a casual, barefoot stroll across a field of broken glass and shattered ideals, and the only reason they didn't feel the pain was because their flesh had long ago frosted over as the chill in their hearts leaked into the air.
They left footprints outlined in blood behind them.
They learned that the nights Kimblee raped Winry were the very same nights that he sent Ed on his missions of murder. When Ed was safely absent on his voyages of assassination, that was the only time he called Winry to his bed.
As sickened as that made her feel – the nauseous, stomach-rolling feeling of a boat in a storm-tossed sea – Winry recognised that for what it was. A hint of weakness, a whisper of fear as soft and muffled as a breath of wind through their tangled jungle of lies.
Though Kimblee might protest otherwise, he knows what Ed can do. He knows his power. And deep in his poisoned soul, he is afraid of what Ed might do if he ever learned of what he does to her. Perhaps because he knows what Ed is capable of doing in the name of those he loves – if he didn't hesitate to try to raise his mother, what would he do to him?
Winry doubted the question kept Kimblee awake at night. But it apparently rolled through his mind like a pebble rattling down a steep cliff – it didn't make you fear the avalanche, but it stirred enough disquiet to make you cautious.
Ed, for his part, didn't even think about weakness or concealment or anything of the kind. Like sudden tunnel-vision, all he could focus on was the concept Winry outlined in her soft, shivering voice – like a single dissenting child among a violent rally, afraid of what will happen when their thoughts are given voice. The fact that the same nights he killed were the same nights she was forced to surrender her body to a madman.
Something about the fact that Kimblee was forcing Winry to have sex with him under the pretense of having stopped Ed from killing on the very nights he forced Ed to kill made him enraged, and something clawed against his ribs like the casual rake of a tiger's claws. He bargained with Winry's safety to force Ed to his bidding, and no sooner had he left than Kimblee was inflicting harm on the very person whose safety Ed's obedience was supposed to buy.
Ed had lived by the laws of Equivalent Exchange for as long as he could remember. But now those laws lay broken at his feet like a shattered mirror, the shards left to mock him with their bright sparkle and splintered promises.
Where is the Equivalent Exchange here?
They couldn't leave this to the law – again, both agree on this. There is no justice to be found here. Winry; because to take this to a court is to reveal Ed's own crimes – it doesn't matter that they were committed under duress – as a lawyer would say it – they're still crimes – and that is something she won't do. She'll sit in the witness stand and perjure herself and say that Kimblee took her to bed with her full consent and encouragement before she risks tugging on a string that leads to the tangled ball of yarn that is the complex winding of Ed's assassinations.
Ed won't take it to court because he knows they won't win. Kimblee's arm is too long, his reach too far – like the strangler fig, reaching high into the trees boughs as it chokes the roots. He won't have Winry stand before a room of complete strangers and recount everything that was done to her, only to have that man denounce her for a slut and a liar and walk free.
And beyond that, Ed needs to send a message to the homunculi. He needs to show them, in the contract of black lies and spilled blood, what it costs to make demands on he and Winry. That what it will cost to hurt them will be far beyond what the homunculi can afford.
Still, Ed was a little disturbed by the whip of fury and triumph that lashed through him when he first told Winry they had to kill Kimblee.
Ed's face is like stone as he leaves her room. But he isn't going to Kimblee, not yet – it's still a long time before the homunculi's puppet expects him back. He's going to his room, to inform his brother of what's happened. His heart feels like a lead weight in his shoes, dreading the moment when he has to destroy the last of his brother's innocence.
He goes to inform Al – who has already lost so much to the dreaded Equivalent Exchange – that they have lost. Again.
But this time, it isn't he and Al who paid directly, and Winry vicariously...this time, he and Winry paid directly, and it is Al who feels the repercussions through them, rather than as one of them.
He always felt his bond with Al as a rope, as something light but strong, binding them together through their mutual pain and understanding of the rigid, iron-clad rule of Equivalent Exchange.
His bond with Winry feels like a chain. Something that weighs on their limbs and drags him down, binding them through their mutual suffering and understanding of the cruelest law of all. There is no Equivalent Exchange in this world...only what you can take, only what you can snatch and grab and steal.
They decided he would be the one to kill Kimblee. Or rather, Ed insisted. Winry volunteered herself, begged him to let her shoulder the responsibility like a child pleading for sweets.
Ed had argued against it, saying she wasn't trained, as he was, had no chance of overpowering Kimblee once his guard was up...
Winry had countered in a subdued voice, delivered with a world of pain behind it, saying that there was no creature more vulnerable than a man having sex.
"We'll wait until next time," she had told him in a hushed, wounded voice. The voice of an animal caught in the jaws of a trap, knowing that chewing it's leg off is the only way to gain it's freedom. "I can hide a needle or something in my hair...I have medical training, I know where to stab it...I can do it when he's...when he's..."
But Ed had understood all-too well what she was driving at. Kimblee would be vulnerable while he was raping her – it would be a simple matter to slide a needle into his jugular or trachea. The thought only crystallised his resolve, like wet clay hardening in the oven.
He point-blank refused to let her go through that, as immovable as a mountain of granite. She had protested, saying that it already happened before, enduring it once more wouldn't matter.
How could Ed explain that it did matter? Bad enough that she'd been forced into such a revolting act when she carried her shameful secret like a necklace of barbed wire, but now that he knew?
Ed couldn't help thinking that he'd failed her somehow by not knowing what was happening to her, by not stopping it. He knew it made no logical sense – it was like saying he should have prevented the Ishbal War – but he couldn't help but feel if he knew what was happening, and allowed her to suffer anyway, it would make him the worst kind of traitor. How could he claim to love her if he let Kimblee rape her again?
Besides, he's killed and she hasn't. He understand the soul-eating guilt that comes with taking a life, and Winry doesn't. He won't allow her to know it – because no matter that he deserves it, Ed knows Winry will feel guilty for Kimblee's murder anyway – and he won't allow this to taint her mind any more than it already has.
He will carry the burden of Kimblee's murder alone, and he hopes this will absolve him of the guilt that gnaws at his heart like a vicious, yellow-toothed rat. He hopes this will silence the venomous whisper in the back of his mind, that spits he is the one who dragged her into this. That if not for his connection to the military, Kimblee would never have met her, never seen her, never desired her...
She fell into the darkness with him and he must be the one to pull her out.
For once, Ed is shamefully glad that Al's armoured face has no expression. It easier to tell him of the night's horrors when there are no real eyes for him to look into. It makes avoiding his brother's mournful gaze that much easier.
"Is she..." Ed can almost hear the nonexistent swallow as Al forces his phantom heart back down his throat to where it belongs. "Is Winry...okay?"
Ed stifles the bitter, hysterical laugh that wants to emerge, and instead makes a sound like a pained snort. Pain from a wound that goes far deeper than mere flesh and blood, pain from the horrific feeling of having his heart eaten out like a rotting, worm-infested apple. "What do you think? She's been letting that son of a bitch rape her for-"
His voice breaks off with an almost audible snap, like frost cracking beneath his shoes. He takes deep, level breaths, trying to calm the seething furies and hatreds feeding like tapeworms in his gut.
He asks Al to look after her while he's gone, then he's out the window like a wraith. Like a ghostly seraphim hunting sinners. And while Ed has never been a fan of religion, he can't help but think that metaphor might not be too far off – even if he's not hunting sinners in general, he is after one in particular...
The sinner with tattooed hands and a snake's smile.
Winry wonders if she should feel guilty. Guilty for not pressing the matter – she knows what killing must do to Ed, and yet she let him walk out of her room, knowing that he was going to murder the man who had so abused them? How can she claim to love him when she allows him to do this?
But some part of her was relieved, relieved that she wouldn't have to suffer Kimblee's touch again. And isn't that unspeakably selfish of her? To let Ed kill him and let him suffer once more while she doesn't?
She wonders if she should feel guilty, or relieved, or ashamed. But she doesn't seem to feel anything. She's just...cold.
Funny, she thought telling her secret – a feeling akin to having a noose lifted from her neck – would finally let warmth seep into her flesh once more. She thought the end of the horror would bring the end of this ever-lasting winter she seems to be trapped in.
But no. She's still cold, still frozen, still unable to feel.
She allows Al to hug her – somehow not feeling afraid because her mind fears skin on skin, not skin on metal – and actually clings when he makes to move away. He protests, saying she shouldn't touch him when he's this cold – the metal that houses his soul is icy in the night's chill – but she tells him, in a voice so flat she barely recognises it, that she doesn't mind.
Because Al's frozen armour is warm compared to the chill in her very blood.
Ed doesn't bother to knock – he knows Kimblee is expecting him. He always used to wonder why Kimblee demanded they meet in hotel rooms, and now that he knows why, he almost wishes he doesn't.
What was that saying about ignorance being bliss...?
Kimblee lets him in, gloating and triumphant, and for the first time Ed understands why. He's not just reveling in the murder committed on his orders, but in the fact that Winry surrendered herself to him just hours ago in an effort to keep such a thing from happening. His triumph comes from the victory of having both of them in the palm of his hand, to be manipulated and toyed with like dolls. To dance to his tune like puppets on the end of his strings.
Except that tonight, the puppets have learned the true nature of this vicious dance. And they have decided to cut the strings once and for all.
Tonight, the puppet master is in for a nasty surprise.
While Ed has never really paid attention to the furnishings of these dingy rooms, he suddenly can't help the way his eyes wander to the bed like iron drawn to a magnet. Rage pulses in him like the deep, booming beat of a drum, and he tries to keep himself calm. Tries not to think of Winry in this dim, dirty place, her naked and vulnerable body covered by a man with a soul filthier than the sheets.
He waits, with all the patience of the hunter, with all the cold, frosty detachment of the predator.
And like the predator...he strikes. A wolf closing its jaws about the pidgeon's neck, a leopard tearing its claws through the deer's haunch, the snake burying its fangs in the vole's body, pumping venom through its veins.
All it takes is one movement, one moment when automail blade cuts skin and scrapes bone like rusted teeth on china, then Kimblee's hands fall to the floor like pale, withered spiders.
First, take away his weapons...
Blood splatters the floor, and while Ed feels its warmth across his face like steaming syrup, it does nothing to heat the tendrils of ice that wrap his heart – the frozen claws of hate that tighten ruthlessly with every passing moment. Kimblee's mouth opens, perhaps to scream, but Ed draws his blade across his windpipe like a writer's final, decisive pen-stroke when they sign their name at the bottom of the manuscript. Blood bubbles through his lungs, and all Kimblee can do is gurgle and splutter like a broken water pipe.
Make sure he cannot call attention to your actions...
It was meant to be quick and clean, but as the hated man claws at the floor with bloodied stumps, blind fury swallows Ed, and he falls willingly into the monster's maw.
And he begins to stab. Furiously, wildly, crazily, plunging his knife into Kimblee's body again and again, feeling skin tearing like wet cloth, tendons snapping against the blade like taut elastic, scraping down the curve of bone like nails across a chalkboard. Deep within Ed's soul, the monster howls with joy, screams for more, and for a moment Ed can feel a twisted, warped, savage pleasure in this murder.
Not joy. It can't be called joy or happiness or anything of the kind. It is vindication. It is justice in her cruelest, most ancient form.
Eye for an eye...
Life destroyed for life destroyed...
It is Equivalent Exchange, restored.
This is their Equivalent Exchange. Ed's and Winry's.
This is his Equivalent Exchange. For all the times he's killed, for all the lives and hopes and dreams he's been forced to end. For all the times he's washed blood from his clothes and all the eyes he has seen dim and extinguish. For his haunted dreams and the tightness in his smile.
This is her Equivalent Exchange. For all the times she's laid passive beneath him, for all the blood and semen she's washed from her thighs in her endless showers. For all the times she's screamed in silence and wept in the dark. For the emptiness in her eyes and the bruises on her wrists.
This is Equivalent Exchange. The bloodied, mutilated body at his feet, more resembling of roadkill than a man.
He doesn't feel guilty. Not even when Kimblee's body is transmuted to its basic elements and thrown into the river in clouds of black powdery carbon – Ed won't even let his corpse renew the earth in case it kills whatever dares to grow near the grave – and the hotel room is transmuted clean and new does Ed feel guilty.
He feels a little guilty about not being guilty, though, and maybe that counts. But the actual act, the slaughtering of Kimblee, as he would put a rabid dog to death?
No...that, Ed doesn't regret.
Some part of him is vaguely disturbed by that. Shouldn't he feel some sorrow – however small – at the taking of a life? But he can't. He can't feel anything.
While Kimblee's death has brought some closure, it isn't the kind Ed had hoped for. He still feels the emptiness, the chill, that has plagued him for months. He still feels cold, still feels numb, still feels as he did the first night he killed on a dead man's orders.
He doesn't bother pulling his coat around his shoulders. It's almost comforting to feel a chill on his flesh to match the one in his soul.
When Ed staggers into Winry's room like a repentant drunkard, it is to find Al sitting in the corner, watching over the mechanic like a surly watchdog. Winry is lying in her bed, rigid as frozen steel, her eyes wide open and staring at the ceiling, empty and devoid of life – the eyes of a corpse. One hand is curled beside her head, the livid bruises standing out like neon lights on her pale skin.
In the end, this is all Equivalent Exchange has bought them. Nothing but aching bodies and bruised souls. Shattered dreams and tainted hearts.
Winry's eyes catch his, and she knows that Kimblee is dead. But she can see it gives Ed no more comfort that it has given her. After all they have done, after all they have suffered...knowing the one who has made them suffer does not make their burden any lighter, nor erase the aching sting in their hearts. She imagines their souls with streaks and swathes of raw, bleeding injuries, some parts blackened and peeling away as though frozen until the flesh withered and died. One death – even the death of their arch tormentor – cannot undo what was already inflicted. She knows these wounds will take a long time to close...if they ever truly heal at all.
The death of the torturer does not wipe away the scars of the tortured.
Ed's eyes have shadows beneath them so dark they look like bruises, almost identical in hue to the ones on her arms and between her thighs. There is no couch in her room, so Winry moves to make room for him on the bed, and he sits with his back against the headboard and his legs stretched in front of him, his hip level with her face. He takes care to be as far from her as he can without falling from the bed, not wanting to crowd her after what she's been through.
Winry feels a trickle of relief like cool water down her spine as she realises Ed will not initiate physical contact. He will not make her feel trapped or give her any reason to remember Kimblee's grasping, greedy hands. It's comforting to her – his silent, unobtrusive, yet tangible presence. Not touching her yet somehow still there, her body still able to sense him even when Al turns off the light.
But she can also sense his pain. While this silent, non-physical companionship is precisely what Winry needs, she knows Ed wants more. She would feel better if she could hug him, like she did mere hours before, but when she did that she was still in a state of shock, terrified that he would hate her...and now, here in the silent, echoing darkness with no crushing desperation to drive her, she isn't sure she could swallow her fear to do it again.
But Ed needs comfort, just as much as she.
Ed becomes aware Winry is moving beside him. His eyes are still adjusting to the night, but when he looks down he can make out her hand creeping across the pillow like a frightened mouse; palm up, slender fingers extended in timid invitation.
He realises what she is doing, and feels his heart twist. He offered her comfort by sitting beside her and choking down his desire to touch her and reassure himself – worried she might not feel comfortable with any man touching her after what Kimblee had put her through – and now she is offering him the comfort of physical contact, struggling through the wariness he knows she must be feeling to give him something of what he is giving her.
Ed slides his flesh hand into hers, letting his thumb rub across the back of her hand as she curls slender digits around his own.
Warmth shivers from her small fingers and up his arm like a spark of electricity. The first real warmth Ed has felt in months, and he grips her hand a shade tighter, holding onto the feeling like a drowning man clinging to a spar of driftwood.
Winry feels Ed squeeze her hand gently, the way one would hug a newborn kitten, and she squeezes back, amazed that for the first time in months, she feels something other than just cold. Ed's hand feels like a radiator, sending heat thumping through her blood once more.
They blink slowly, almost in unison, and feel themselves starting to slip into troubled, haunted dreams. There is no respite for them in sleep, not now, and maybe not ever again. Their joined hands are merely a fantasy, a dream, a warm escape from their cold, dark reality. Like a flash of light in an Antarctic winter.
But they don't let go.
Because the night is long and dark, and very, very cold. And in the end, they will face it as they entered it.
Together. Hand in hand.
Into the darkness.
AN: Thank you, LaughingAstarael, who betaed this for me.