- Irene Shafer
"How long have you been planning this?"
Ed made no move to respond. He just stood at the window watching his brother in the yard below. A familiar sight, this tableau: Al maneuvering his bulky metal body in some rough approximation of boy-like play; Ed at a distance, watching in silence, intently working his jaw, his face an open book of guilt, responsibility and utter love.
Normally, she'd indulge herself, taking a moment to vicariously absorb a little sibling devotion - she'd always envied them the bond of their blood tie - but today she sensed more than innocent observation in this scene; it was almost like Ed was taking stock, trying to memorize the scene - or the player. Or the feeling...
The sensation of the worn leather journal in her hands brought her back to the moment. Angrily, she hefted the book, spreading it open, letting the pages right themselves; pages covered with detailed figures and vaguely familiar shapes, dated scribblings that seemed all at once emphatic and painstaking and somehow desperate.
She knew enough about alchemy to know what it all meant. She knew enough to be angry and scared and awestruck, all at the same time.
With growing impatience, Winry realized she was shaking. Frustrated with herself, she bit down hard on her lip, grounding herself on the pain. Truth was, she didn't have time for weakness right now. From what she'd read, she barely had time for this conversation.
"Ed. Answer me!"
Taking a breath, she repeated the question. "How long have you been planning to do this?" She scanned the nearest dated entry. "It looks like you've been working on this transmutation for over a year now. Does Al know?"
For a moment, she thought he wasn't going to answer her, and then she saw him shift at the window, as if coming out of a reverie.
"What do you think," he finally said.
His voice was hoarse, as though he hadn't spoken a word in hours. He'd had himself holed up in this room, buried in books, since the morning. (Longer, probably.) Not even Al had been able to coax him outside and he had completely forgotten about lunch, which wasn't like him at all. He looked like he hadn't slept in days; strands of gold had worked themselves out of what was usually a neatly bound braid and she could see the faint shadow of light beard on his otherwise ghostly pale face.
His eyes never left his brother – or the behemoth that represented his brother – and his breath fogged the glass as he spoke. "This isn't the kind of thing you discuss, Winry. Not with anyone."
She saw him look down, away from the window, and for a moment it almost seemed as though he did want to discuss it, to spill it all to her and convince her it was right - this thing he intended to do.
Then the moment passed and it was back to track Al's metal shell as it wheeled through the yard, now chasing a chipmunk, laughably, with a bag of nuts.
"Silly, kid," he breathed, his face softening. Then his jaw tightened and he blinked hard; she didn't need to see the wetness to know it was there.
"It only works if he doesn't know." He said this so quietly, she wasn't sure she'd heard him right.
"What? I don't understand, Ed. What are you talking about?"
He sighed heavily, clearly frustrated that she didn't get it.
"Look, if he knows, he can stop it. It will only work if he has no idea it's happening."
The truth of it made the floor beneath her start to dip. Or maybe it was the earth.
"Ed, why would you do this?"
"You're kidding, right? C'mon, Winry. Work it out for yourself. I've spent the last seven years of my life trying to make it right. If there were another way, don't you think I would have found it by now? It's up to me to fix things. I did this to him." He swore softly.
She felt a bitter ache in her chest and the sting of a familiar longing: she wanted to touch him; she wanted to hold him; she wanted to keep him on this spot until he forgot what he was planning, until he remembered he had her to live for...
It saddened her that after years of obsessing over Edward Elric's glorious metal parts, she had no idea how to deal with the rest of him...
"Ed, you didn't … mean for it to happen," she said haltingly, cursing herself for her inadequacy. She stunk at words. Give her a wrench and a pile of bolts, and she could build a road to the moon.
"I'm his big brother. I'm supposed to protect him." His voice broke. "Do you have any idea how hard this has been to live with?"
Of course she did. "Why didn't you come talk to me, Ed? Maybe I could have helped."
There weren't many sounds more cutting than the sarcastic sound of Edward Elric's laughter, but add to that frustration and, quite probably, a stiff shot of anger at being discovered, and Winry didn't just flinch, she took two steps back.
"I know you're a brain and all, but what were you gonna tell me that I didn't already know? They call it "equivalent exchange" for a reason. The last time, it was just an arm…and that wasn't enough. This is… There's nothing else I can offer." He nodded, as if trying to convince himself. "This is right. This is how it should be. How it has to be."
A moment ago, she'd wanted to wrap her arms around him. Now all she wanted was to hit him, to bring him to his senses, to find some way to stop him from doing this. She half-seriously thought about stealing into his room while he was asleep and removing his automail, but that would only work if he actually slept, a habit he seemed to have broken lately.
Actually, that was a good thing to threaten him with: without his right arm, he couldn't perform the transmutation.
"I'll—I'll repossess your automail! I can doctor the books. I'm a brain, remember?"
For a moment, he seemed too stunned to respond, then his temper kicked in.
"Fine! I'll just leave and you'll never see either of us again!" He threw his one small suitcase onto the bed and started shoving in his scant belongings. Mixed with the anger, though, she saw something else; he was clearly surprised at the direction this conversation had taken. He'd expected her to understand and support him. He'd expected an ally.
Ed was hurt.
She instantly regretted the empty threat. She wouldn't have dreamed of removing his automail, either by stealth or by legal means. She hadn't wanted him to run out of here, trailing socks and papers behind him. She just wanted to make him think twice…
"We can be out of here in 10 minutes, Winry! Get yer last looks in 'cos the last thing you're gonna see is my ass walking down the road!"
He crammed the last of his stuff into the suitcase, muttering darkly to himself, but if anything, he looked like he'd been abandoned. Like she was abandoning him.
"Wait, Ed! I didn't mean it. Don't-please don't go!"
He looked at her then and in his face, that impossibly handsome, now grown face, she could see the Ed she'd grown up with, the boy who'd played in her yard, shared frozen ices and cookies with her, told stories that made his brother and her giggle; the Ed who was her oldest friend. She cared about these two more than she cared about anyone in the world. She cared about Ed more than she could have admitted to him…
When he spoke, his voice was quiet and the resignation she heard there made her sick to her stomach.
"You want to help me, Winry? Help him…after. He's gonna need it. And I'll feel better knowing you'll be there for him. That you can help him see why it had to be this way."
Her face was wet before she even realized she was crying. "Help him to see why, Ed? How could I when I don't? How can this be the best solution?"
"It's not the best solution, Winry." He glanced to his brother, now on his back watching the clouds drifting in the sky over his head. "It's the only solution."
"I've been looking for so long, chasing the stone and any other lead that might bring him back. Eight years and nothing to show for it. Except for this. This is... this is it." He laughed again, bitterly this time. "It's actually pretty simple. Ridiculously simple." His grin was a hint of the old Ed. "I'm kind of embarrassed I didn't see it before. Guess I didn't want to think I'd actually have to pay for what I did to him, you know? That I'd have to really give something up this time. Something that couldn't be replaced."
She was shaking her head, trying to drive his words from her brain, but no matter how hard she shook, they refused to budge.
Only solution. Pay for what I did. Give something up.
"Nooo! I don't believe you! There's got to be another –"
Like dry tinder, his anger caught fire again quickly, so quickly it knocked the breath right out of her.
"You don't have to believe me," he growled through tightly clenched teeth. "You just have to stay out of my way."
For eyes the color of honey and gold, he managed to fix her with the coldest of glares, then he bolted for the door.
Something in her reacted in a split second and she deftly caught him there. Another scant second's uncertainty and she was pulling him hard and close, feeling the fury in him; one hand registering the blood boiling beneath his smooth skin, the other, cold, hard determination.
"Never," she said, quietly. "I could never stay out of your way. No matter what."
Bristling, he seemed to fight some internal battle, anger and pride demanding he resist at all costs and stand his ground, determined to be the man he'd been forced to be so long ago. A moment later, the battle was over and he relented, dropping the suitcase and melting into her, holding on for all he was worth, every bit the lost soul that he was.
They stood silently, holding onto each other for dear life.
She did understand one thing in all of this: for Ed it did have to be this way. He truly believed that this was the fairest of equivalent exchanges. A life for a life.
This conclusion he'd come to was harsh and cold and real, but it was also somehow noble and in one sense, maybe, right. Who was she to stand in his way? What if he never found another way to restore Al's body? Could she condemn him to a life of guilt trying to atone for a failed thing that he'd done out of love? For trying to bring Trisha back?
"Just promise me something," she said softly, her voice muffled against his neck. She could smell his skin, so close, and the scent, cinnamon and salt, made her weak for a moment.
His relief was palpable.
"Anything." His breath moved her hair and she felt her heart drop to the floor. She held him tighter.
"Don't go away. Don't… don't take him away somewhere cold to do this. He should be home. He should be here with me."
He nodded against her. "OK."
"And so should you… You should be here with me." She hoped he'd heard the double meaning. When his strong hands circled her waist and pulled her closer, she knew he had.
"I want to be," he whispered softly. "I want to be, but I don't have any right."
She felt like her heart would burst. "Yes, you do."
This poor, sad young man who'd only ever wanted to help everyone and he was prepared to pay the ultimate price.
"It's a fair trade, Winry."
"I… I know you think it is."
"It is. To restore the balance: my life for his. I owe him that."
She wanted to scream. She could see the life ahead of her – and it wasn't the one she'd wanted. Or expected. She'd always thought there'd be time. She'd always thought they'd both be a part of her life. That there'd be more.
"What about me?" she managed to choke out. "What do you owe me? After all my work. After…everything. How can you… how can you leave me?"
When he pulled away, he made no attempt to hide anything he was feeling.
"If I think about it I won't be able to do what I have to." He was studying her face closely and she felt her cheeks flush. "This isn't about what I want, Winry. It can't be. If it was…." His words trailed off, but she heard them anyway. 'If it was, I'd stay here and never leave…'
He leaned forward and brushed his lips against hers; briefly, sweetly.
A first. A last.
Then he was gone, slipping quietly down the stairs.
She heard them out on the front lawn, amidst the trappings of normalcy – Al pelting Ed with peanuts, Ed maligning his brother's aim, laughing as he dodged the tiny projectiles – but she knew it was just for show. Knew what was behind at least Ed's half of their play, knew how hard he'd be working at it.
Almost as hard as she'd just been...
Of course, she couldn't accept it, no matter what she'd told him. This wasn't some feudal society where it was noble and right to sacrifice your own life for someone else – not when the ones you leave behind will suffer for it. Especially not if the one to suffer the most is the one you're making the sacrifice for.
Having carried that burden for so very long, how could Ed want his brother to live with that same guilt for the rest of his life? To know that this time, to save his brother, to restore him to his body, Ed had given up more than just something replaceable like a limb, but that this time, he'd given up his life?
Whatever Ed's logic, his understanding of alchemy and science, or his feelings of guilt, he could not truly believe this was the one and only solution.
In the end, this "solution" would only destroy Alphonse.
Al was devoted to his brother, adored him, depended on him. Without him, she was quite sure Al would be more than lost; he would lose himself. He would never recover.
No, this could not happen. She knew she'd never convince Ed of that, but there was one way to stop him – and it was an easy one, at that.
All she had to do was tell Al what Ed was planning.
It only works if he doesn't know…
Ed might never forgive her for doing it, he might make good on his threat – leave and never come back here again – but that was a price she was willing to pay. Better to have him alive and hating her… then dead.
Hard to imagine a world without Edward Elric in it.
It occurred to her that she would have had an awful lot of explaining to do, and not just to Alphonse, if she had let Ed carry out his plan: Gracia and Elysia, Roy Mustang, Alex Armstrong, Miss Izumi, jeez, her grandmother...
She took a deep breath and let it out slowly, feeling the relief wash over her. The unbearable pressure in her chest, pain she'd felt since finding Ed's journal, since realizing his intentions, started to ease and she knew she'd found her solution.
It wasn't one that ended with Alphonse back in his human body and it most certainly wasn't one that ended with a little cottage nearby and the possibility of sharing it with the one someone she'd loved (and sometimes hated) for as long as she could remember, but it was a solution she'd have to live with.
As she headed downstairs to help her grandmother make dinner, she wondered how much time she had. She needed to cook up some sort of story to get Al alone, preferably with Ed far away. Maybe she could suggest Ed visit his mother's grave - one "last" time. She had to act soon, though. Ed would probably want to do the transmutation as quickly as possible; he wouldn't trust her to keep her mouth shut.
As well he shouldn't.
She weighed what she stood to lose here against what both Ed and Al stood to gain and as harsh as it was sure to be, as much as she hated the path it put her life onto, she knew it her heart it was the right thing to do: Ed's friendship, (and, Pinako would remind her, his business), any chance there might have been for them, any future she might have dreamed of – gone.
Her happiness for Ed's life.
In the end, it was a fair trade.