"Do you have it all memorized now?" Trisha gazed expectantly into a pair of solemn blue eyes. The little girl nodded.
"Uh-huh. And I won't forget it, ever," she promised, swinging her legs as she perched on the edge of the bed.
"Good girl," said Trisha, a weary but proud smile on her lips. "I knew I could count on you. And remember," she added, leaning forward and raising her eyebrows mysteriously, "you can't tell anyone about this, not even Ed and Al. It's our special secret, alright? Can you keep it safe for me?"
"Of course I can!" The words were hot and stubborn, filled with childish passion. "I promise I won't ever tell an-y-one. Cross my heart. 'Sides," Winry muttered as a resentful afterthought, "they never tell me their secrets."
~ -:- ~
They never told her their secrets, instead burying themselves in dusty alchemy books and the mysteries of the universe, driven by blind desire and false hope...and now they have paid the price for it. Ed is eleven and Al is ten, and they are all broken and empty and far too old.
Night has fallen. Grandma Pinako is fast asleep, and it is Winry's turn to check up on the two. She sees Alphonse sitting alone by the window and gently touches his arm as she passes, feeling the cold surface of hollow metal against her skin, a bitter reminder of last night's chaos. She still hasn't gotten used to the fact that the living, breathing, laughing boy she knew is now a suit of armor, a shell; warm skin and round, happy face replaced by unfriendly spikes and sharp corners.
Just what terrors had happened yesterday, in the house next to hers? She may never fully know.
"Winry?" His voice is a metallic echo, tinged with fear. The two eyeholes in his helmet glow with a reddish light, alien and strange. "Will...will brother get better?"
She stops, turns and manages a small smile.
"Of course he will," she reassures him, sounding more confident than she feels. "Me and Grandma are doing everything we can. It'll just take time, that's all. The fever hasn't broken yet." She speaks slowly, choosing her words with care. "You guys have been through something pretty awful, and I don't think either of you will recover from it overnight. Let's just...take it slow for now. Okay?"
Before Al can answer, she hears a faint cry..."Mother!"...and suddenly every dark thought is swallowed up by one: Edward.
Winry rushes into the dimly-lit sick room and sees him in bed, covered in bandages, the blankets rumpled and sweated through as he sobs and struggles feebly against the clutches of a nightmare.
"No, I...I didn't...don't take him, please don't take him, please..."
She is at his side in an instant, as if by reflex, and she smoothes back his blonde hair and whispers, "It's okay, shhh, it's okay..." (But it isn't okay, and she doesn't know how to make it okay, because fixing automail is one thing but fixing people is another.) Edward moans and turns his head on the pillow, drifting in and out of consciousness. Noting the burning temperature of his skin, she reaches for the pile of fresh washcloths on the nightstand, dips one in a pan of cold water and lays it across his forehead.
"Winry," he chokes.
"I'm here," comes the soft reply. It takes every ounce of willpower to keep from crying herself...because now it's her turn to be the strong one.
His breathing steadies somewhat, but tears still run down his sleeping face and the demons still hold him in an iron grip, spilling desperate pleas and apologies from his lips.
Her heart clenches anew. Miss Trisha...what might she say if she could see her boys now?
Her "little geniuses", she called them; rewarding them with shining eyes and kisses and praise for every lovingly-made trinket they crafted for her. It was Equivalency at its finest - mother's smiles for their art. Her affection stirring theirs. Love freely given, received, and given again in a never-ending circle. Winry knows very little about alchemy, but that much she understands.
She also finally understands why her heart had felt so uneasy when she'd first caught Ed and Al with an alchemy book under that tree, years ago, when they still had everything to lose.
And she understands how the world goes cold and empty and dark when the star you orbit around is snuffed out, never to return. She knows all too well how one would give anything to get it back, and how horribly it hurts when you can't. And a chill whispers over her when she realizes that put in Ed and Al's place - put within reach of any glimmer of hope to see her own parents again - she'd probably end up missing some limbs, too.
But she hasn't. Ed has. Both of her best friends have lost themselves, and she has no idea how to find them again, and she desperately wishes Trisha were here to make everything better, to do what she can't...
"Winry, there's something very important I need you to do for me... I'll be leaving in a little while...and they will miss me terribly..."
Her eyebrows furrow as the woman's voice brushes across her memory, gently silencing her fears. Something important...what was it? She closes her eyes, trying to bring the blurry words into focus.
"There's a song...when Ed and Al are scared or sad, it helps them feel better and go to sleep..."
A song...? She remembers the lacy afghan spread across Trisha's lap and the breeze making the bedroom cutains dance.
And since I won't be around, I need you to sing it for me...for them...they will need you..."
She remembers swinging her little-girl's legs from the edge of the bed and feeling a cool, soft hand on her arm as the mother sings to her...and she remembers singing back, and swearing she will never forget...
THE song. The lullaby. The small, shining piece of herself that Trisha had passed on, for Winry to give away at just the right time.
"Are you ready?"
Yes. If there was ever a right time, it was now.
Taking Edward's single hand in both of her own, the girl hums a few faint notes under her breath, wracking her brains for the melody and the words for the first verse. And finally, haltingly, she begins to sing:
I am here
Rest in my love
There is soft clank just outside the door, and she knows that Alphonse is listening.
Moon shines above...
She feels Ed tighten his grip on her left hand, pulling it a few inches closer to him. The lines of pain in his face start to fade and he breathes a shuddering sigh.
You are in my keeping
Now it's time for sleeping
Be at peace and listen to my voice
I'll send you dreaming
"...'love you," he murmurs, the words slurred and weak though whether he is speaking to her or his mother, Winry isn't quite sure. Perhaps...both? She brushes a wet strand of hair out of his face and continues.
Hush now, let your fears go
Be brave, heed no shadow
Though the clouds be dark
Still there are stars forever gleaming...
She trails off for a brief moment and studies him. The stump where his right arm used to be is still bleeding a little, but the bandages are fresh and clean. There are light bruises, here and there (probably caused by Al's clumsy haste when he first carried his unconscious brother to safety, the unfeeling metal arms still unaware of their own strength). But they will heal soon.
His eyes are shut and relaxed. His chest now rises and falls in a deep, steady rhythm and most of the tension has left his body. A shadow remains on him, though it is not quite as dark as it was a few minutes ago. And for now, it's the best she can do.
The girl leans over him, presses a soft little kiss to his forehead, and the last stanza becomes a promise:
Day will dawn when night is done
Slumber now and wait for sun
Ever by your side...I'll...stay.
~ The End ~