Winly is staring at me again, and I shift the ice pack against my cheek and do my best to ignore her. She doesn't always ask the question, y'see, she just looks, and you can see the question waiting there, on her face.
I don't feel up to answering, or explaining. Or maybe the only answer is that I can't.
From the minute Izumi threw me from the window, tumbling backwards across the hotel room, I knew I was toast. There's no other way to describe it. Yeah, sure, the woman scares the living daylights out of me. You'd have to be inhuman not to quake in fear when she stares you down. But it was also the aggravation of knowing I had places to go, leads to follow, and I knew she'd drag us back to Dublith and probably keep us there. In little cages, and she'd only let us out to fatten us up with lectures.
Perhaps I exaggerate, but not entirely. Izumi's a good teacher, and I learned a lot from her. But for her, everything's a lesson. A damn autumn leaf falling is reason to explain the way the world works. I've had my share of lessons in the past four years. I don't have time to listen to more.
It might seem funny that Alphonse and I were so anxious to get away—I know Winly kept giving us looks like we were over-reacting. But the truth is, Izumi's no fool. The longer we were around, the sooner she'd figure it out, and I can handle lots of things. Hell, I've handled just about everything thrown my way, and managed to land on my feet, if I do say so myself. But I'm not sure I'd be up to handling her anger. No, that's not true.
The real truth was that I wasn't up to handling her disappointment.
Winly shifts in the chair, making the springs creak, but I don't move. Lying on the bed feels too damn good. My back aches. There's a bruise on my right hip that's probably going to be rainbow colors by tomorrow, judging from the tenderness. My left shoulder creaks when I move the icepack to my jaw. The ice is melting, a thin trickle of water running down to pool behind my ear.
I don't care. It all hurts.
And yet, somehow, I feel more content than I have in years.
I was doing my best, keeping a low profile. I still had hopes we could get out of there in one piece. Visit, chat, be friendly, and move right on along. Oh, I figured we'd end up moving right along in the dead of night...but I had no illusions that even then we'd probably find Seig or Izumi blocking the window, the door, and the fireplace flue. But I've lived for four years on hope, so I guess I've gotten used to just figuring that something will come up. Maybe a house down the street will spontaneously combust, distracting Izumi for the precious ten minutes we'd need to grab our stuff and hightail it out of Dublith.
I wouldn't have minded seeing her again, and I knew Alphonse probably felt the same. It was just...the longer we were there, the greater the chances she'd figure it out. And I'd managed to keep my gloves on and avoid the issue, until that damn dog chased the girl's cat up on the roof.
No thinking, just jump right in—yeah, that's me, damn it. There wasn't the time to consider letting the kitten roll off the roof and hit the ground, two stories down. There was a little girl watching, and I forgot everything else but saving that kitten. Clap hands. Slap them to the building. Kitten's saved.
That's when I looked down to see Izumi's expression. I knew the kitten might be fine, but I was officially busted.
I think my good leg's pretty messed up, too. When I flex my ankle, pain shoots up through my calves and stabs at the muscle above my knee. My left wrist twinges, and my shoulder aches down to the elbow. Breathing too deeply makes my chest hurt.
"Ed?" Winly's voice is soft. I tense, and she hesitates. "Do...you want more ice?"
"No, I'm fine." I move the icepack back up my cheek, where the welt runs in a fist-sized shape under my eye to my temple.
The pain throbs in time with my heart: slow, and steady.
We buried the cat. I watched, listening with half an ear, as Izumi discussed the cycle of life with the little girl, too busy cataloging my own history to pay much mind. We had—I had—fucked up, bluntly. Yeah. I got that. We never should've tried, but it's too late now. And I've—we've—done so much in the past four years. I'm a National Alchemist, but it was the only option. I never could have learned half the things I've learned without that damn watch—which, I reminded myself, Izumi still had. I'd have to make sure to snag it back before we managed to sneak out and get away.
When everyone else left the gravesite, I braced myself. Izumi hadn't moved, and I figured it was time for another lecture. Here we go. Must've been another leaf falling somewhere while I was looking the other way.
It was when she told us that Alphonse wasn't in that suit of armor, and that I had two limbs of auto-mail that I knew what was coming next. I was startled, I'll admit, but not because she'd figured it out. I was startled because she'd known it all along. All that time I'd acted so nonchalant, been so sure I'd managed to fool her, and she knew.
I wasn't sure whether I wanted to scream in aggravation or laugh bitterly. I'm a damned National Alchemist, and I've stared down worse horrors, and been cool and collected in the face of things that would give the average person three lifetimes of nightmares. And yet...she'd known. The whole damn time. I felt like an idiot. I hate feeling like an idiot.
I gritted my teeth, ready to defend the choices I'd made. Right or wrong, they were my choices. Alphonse helped, yeah, but in the end, it was my insistence, my decision. Those were my actions that put us where we were, at the base of that tree staring at our teacher's back as she listened to my reply.
"Have you ever wanted to bring someone back from the dead?"
With those words, I threw down the gauntlet.
And with one punch, Izumi picked it up.
"Ed?" Winly's voice is soft, hovering somewhere nearby. I lower the icepack, my eyelashes fluttering as I try to focus. That small amount of effort makes me want to groan, but I just sigh.
"Dinner will be ready in a bit."
"Not hungry," I say, but it's not true, and I realize it with a hesitant smile. "Maybe a little."
"I think it's soup," Winly adds.
"Ah." I can handle soup. Steak? Out of the question. I rearrange the icepack, and hold it against my chin. In a few seconds, my hand goes lax as my body relaxes again, and the icepack falls to my shoulder. It feels just as good there, so I leave it.
The door shuts quietly behind Winly. Alone, I let my body relax completely, the aches and pains settling into a quiet chorus of little pokes and jabs.
Fine, I thought. You want to do it that way, go right ahead.
I hit the tree, relaxing my body at the last second as I tumbled ass-over-heels to lie on the ground. Taking a second to get my breath, I pushed myself upright, coming to my feet. Izumi had just laid Alphonse flat out on his back. I spared a single glance for my brother, but I knew he'd be okay.
Izumi grabbed my shirt, yanking me up to my toes. She stared me in the eyes for a long second, and I stared at her right back.
My choice. My decision. I'll live with it. I have lived with it.
She hit me again, and the pain blossomed from my cheek. My head snapped around from the force, the muscles screaming at the sharp twist.
To hell with you, I thought, but I couldn't say it. My jaw was clenched tight. There's nothing you can do to me that hasn't already been done.
I staggered backwards when she released me. Hunched over, I fought the urge to put a hand to my cheek, and glowered at her instead.
Fuck you, I thought. I know what I did. I don't need you to remind me.
Alphonse came to his feet. Izumi spun, catching his arm and tossing him effortlessly, as though he were a paper cutout, not a full suit of armor. Then she turned, reaching for me again, and I nearly snarled.
To hell with you. My choice. My decision. Something inside me was dropping down, energy pooling in my gut, bracing my spine. Her fist slammed into my stomach and I fell to my knees, gagging.
Like that's jack shit compared to the past four years, I retorted silently. Not even close. I got one leg under me, coming to my feet, but wasn't even fully upright before she'd caught me by my left arm. The world spun around me and I slammed into the ground. My left shoulder crunched as it hit the earth. I rolled instinctively.
Nothing you can do to me. Nothing I haven't done to myself.
Pushing myself up again, I watched as she flipped Alphonse again. He cried out as he hit the ground, dazed. She didn't even pause, turning and catching me in the ribs with a foot. Her strong hands caught my right wrist, flipping me over as she elbowed me in the chest.
Go ahead. This is how it should be. My crime. My sin.
I climbed to my feet again, shoulders squared. I was panting hard, but Izumi wasn't even breathing heavy. Her fists caught me across the jaw, then a foot to my hip and I was flying, crashing to ground in a heap.
How much more do I have to take?
The world was still spinning when I came to my hands and knees, white gloves filthy from clutching the dirt. Coughing, I pushed myself upright, waiting. She didn't hesitate. Her right hook caught me in the cheek again. I couldn't even defend. I didn't want to defend.
She was right. What I'd done was horribly wrong. She'd warned us, and I hadn't listened. I'd lied by omission. I'd accepted her teaching with the express purpose of doing the one thing she'd said was unacceptable.
My action. My crime.
I was still twisting from the last blow when she swept my legs out from under me. I hit the ground, ass-first, flat on my back. Before I could move, her elbow was in my gut, and I curled around the pain. She was gone already; the ringing of metal told me she'd turned to Alphonse again. I lay on my side, barely able to focus on the strands of grass in front of me.
I'd asked her to teach us, and done the one thing she'd said could not be allowed, should not be done. The one thing—the only thing—that was truly unforgivable.
My choice. My sin.
I coughed, tasting blood in my mouth, like the faint iron scent of sweat on auto-mail. Scrambling against the grass clods, I rolled onto my stomach. I fell to my knees the first time I tried to get up, but then stood, swaying, as I waited.
Nothing is going to make it go away. This pain, this daily agony, this memory of my crime is unforgivable. I can get up and walk, but I can't walk far enough or fast enough to leave behind the knowledge of what I've done.
Another blow, and I twisted, hitting the ground again. Something crunched and tore in my gut. Yeah, I thought, coming to my elbows as I gasped, it hurts. It hurts, deep down, where nothing can ever reach. My brother's body is gone. I did that. My arm, my leg. I did that. In the end, all me. My choice, my crime, my decision, my sin: my sole fault.
A foot to my jaw flipped me over again. My head hit the ground, twisting my neck and I tumbled, my wrist trapped under me as I came to rest. A sharp pain lanced up my arm, and I couldn't hide the groan.
Just make the pain stop. Tell me when it'll end. Make it real, make it true, that someday it'll be over. Tell me that it'll be over. I don't know. I can't take anymore. One more blow, I thought, and maybe I will break.
And maybe that's a good thing.
Metal crashed in the background. Alphonse whimpered, probably from the whirl of earth and sky going head-over-ass.
I wanted to promise myself that I could keep going. I couldn't. All I could think was: I hurt. Make it be over. I ache. I want it to end. I give up. I can't—
Another blow sent me sprawling by Alphonse. I curled over my knees, my hands splayed on the grass. I raised my head, to see Izumi, glaring down at both of us. But more than that, she didn't look angry...she looked disappointed.
That's when I broke.
It took everything I had to get one foot under me, and I paused, nearly biting through my tongue to force the battered muscles to work. Unsteady, I pushed upwards, stumbling a little. My balance was off. Everything hurt.
Inside, and out.
I failed. I failed Alphonse. I failed myself. And I failed my teacher. Everything I'd tried, for four years, every chance I'd taken...all failures. Over and over, and I kept trying. I don't know where the end is. I don't know when I've done enough. Tell me. Tell me when it's been enough. Tell me. I don't know.
Izumi watched me for a long second, and I braced myself. My feet were planted shoulder-width apart, but I couldn't muster the strength to form fists. She moved towards me, and I flinched, ready to accept another strike. The next one would send me down and I didn't think I'd get up again.
There's nothing left of me, I wanted to whisper. I could only stare at her, hoping she understood. Hit me if you must. It's no less than I deserve. I failed. My choice. My decision. My crime. My sin. This physical ache is pouring into the hole in my heart. I can't stop it.
She stared at me, and I stared back.
I don't know how to make it stop. I can't forgive myself. If you can, I'll let you. Please.
And that's when she hugged me.
The door whispers as it sweeps across the floor, and footsteps near the bed. Something is set down on the table by the bed, followed by a light clatter that's probably a spoon. A second set of footsteps enters as well. I force my eyes open as someone takes the soggy towel of melting ice cubes away from my neck.
Izumi is leaning over me, her eyes narrowed as she tilts my chin one way, then the other. Her lips are in a tight line, but it's not annoyance, just her usual contemplative expression. She places a new icepack against my cheek, puts my hand on top of it, and steps out of my line of sight.
At the end of the bed, I can see Winly, giving me a hesitant smile. She has a hopeful look. I'm pretty sure I know what she's thinking.
Peace offering, her face says.
No, I want to tell her, as I struggle to sit up. Winly knows better than to help, and I groan a little as the muscles protest the movement. I reach for the spoon, stirring the soup idly before sipping it carefully. Izumi's an excellent cook, but I'm not up for a burnt tongue to add to the list of injuries. I realize Winly's still watching me, but she's settled down in the chair with her own bowl of soup. Her eyes dart from her bowl to me, and back again. That question is back on her face, but it's a different one, now.
No, I wish I could say, in a way Winly would understand. It's not a peace offering. There's no truce. It's not like that at all. My teacher doesn't offer such things.
Especially when there's no longer a need.