A/N: Takes place not long after Ed joins the military.

It was completely ruined.

Ed stared in horror at his image in the mirror. His once carefully manicured and braided blond hair now resembled something one might find in a rat's nest. It was mussed and disheveled, matted beyond recognition, and in the middle of it all were small, inconspicuous threads of pink.

Bubble gum. Bubble gum had brought him to this.

His internal clock had been numbed by his dismay, but he was willing to bet he'd been glued in front of the lavatory mirror for well over an hour, trying desperately to get the gunk from his golden hair, but he had only succeeded in making it worse. It was everywhere, in his hair and jammed in the joints of his automail fingers, making them whirl and moan in protest.

He felt bitter, hot tears burning behind his eyes, frustration eating away at all of his self-control. Why wouldn't it just come out? And why did that lowlife Corporal Winters have to even exist in the first place?

It wasn't as if Ed hadn't dealt with bullies before. As a kid that enjoyed reading alchemy books, and being unusually . . . well, not being quite as tall as everyone else, he had attracted his fair share of unwanted attention on the playground.

But Ed wasn't prepared to encounter that in the military, from adults. People that he was supposed to be able to look up to and rely on.

Winters and his merry little band of imbeciles had gone out of their way to make Ed's life unreasonably difficult, and now he was at his wit's end. It hurt more than he wanted to admit when they called him "cyborg" and "cripple." When they replaced his soap in the locker rooms with motor oil, or when Winters or one of his lackeys condescendingly offered to reach the high shelf for him or hold his hand when he crossed the street, it made Ed's blood boil, but fear of a court-martial kept him from lashing out. Ed needed the military, and nothing those dirt bags did was going to interfere with him getting his little brother's body back.

This, though . . .

Ed wiped his eyes roughly and leaned against the counter, glaring at his hair as if he could intimidate the gum out of it. His hands shook, automail rattling, and he gripped the sink in front of him to stop it, making some of the porcelain crumble under his prosthetic.

The stupid pranks, he could take. He could handle them calling him names and making fun of his automail. He could even handle the way they occasionally shoved him into walls or other people.

But this . . . this was different. One might accuse him of having his priorities skewed, but Ed would tell them exactly where they could shove their advice. Because this was important, even if people didn't get it.

With a frustrated snarl, Ed lashed out. His automail caught the mirror, shattering it into a fragmented, faceted spider web. A few loose shards clattered into the sink and he bent over them, taking a slow, shuddering breath and furiously wiping tears away.

He was not going to cry over stupid hair.

Then an unpleasantly cheery face appeared over his shoulder in the mirror and Ed felt cold dread form in his gut.

"Good morning, Fullmetal," Mustang greeted smugly, onyx eyes obscenely bright and chipper. "Is there a reason you're destroying government prop. . . er. . . Fullmetal?" The man's voice suddenly turned apprehensive and Ed ducked his head further.

"No." His voice shook and he took another breath before speaking. "Go away, Mustang." If there was any man he hated more than his old man, it was Mustang, and there was no way he was going to let him see Ed cry.

Not that he was crying. It was stupid to cry over ruined hair.

"Fullmetal . . ." Mustang began again, "is that gum in your hair?"

A small thrill of fear ran down his spine.

What if Mustang ordered him to cut it?

It was unthinkable. He hadn't cut his hair since . . . there was no way he'd do it!

He rounded on his commanding officer. Mustang's eyebrows shot up and he backed up a step, but Ed didn't have it in him to be smug about it. "I'm not going to cut it, Mustang!" he shouted, uncaring if the entire base heard him. "I'm not, so just forget it!"

Mustang raised his hands slowly, like a man trying to talk a wild dog out of biting him. "I never said anything about cutting it, Ed."

Ed blinked. He'd never heard Mustang use his name before. It was always "Fullmetal," or "Midget," or "Pipsqueak." And for once, his face was without that awful, all-knowing smirk. Ed actually saw something like concern in those dark eyes, and he suddenly felt stupid.

Mustang took advantage of his stunned silence. "Why don't you just sit down on the bench over there and let me take a look at it."

It took Ed's brain a good solid half-minute for it to realize his body was doing what it had been told, turning to sit on the wooden bench in the middle of the lavatory before Ed could properly refuse Mustang's help.

"I don't need your help," he said even as his body betrayed him and sat down.

"Of course," Mustang said, standing over him in a way that made him uneasy somehow. Maybe it's the way everyone in the military had been standing over him these days; all condescending and domineering, but all of that was strangely absent in the Colonel at that moment, and the complete lack of it was enough to make him even more uncomfortable.

As if sensing Ed's wariness, Mustang proceeded gently. The older man carefully reached out to touch his hair, and Ed felt the tears well up all over again. He quickly blinked them back before they became missals in Mustang's personal arsenal. He caught the Colonel's frown in another mirror on the wall in front of him. "Quite a mess," he muttered, almost sounding impressed. Ed scowled and opened his mouth to reply, but Mustang cut him off. "Wait here."

Ed's mouth was still open when Mustang quickly turned and left the room, the door gently bouncing shut behind him. Ed stared after him for a moment, then scowled. The pompous jerk probably went to go get his whole team to come in and mock him. That had been his kind of week, after all.

Edward briefly considered leaving while no one was here. He had come to this particular lavatory for the privacy of it. It was on the same floor as Mustang's office, but half the facilities didn't work, and the sink had the nasty habit of spitting water in the face of whoever turned it on. Now that Mustang had found his hideout, he should just pull his hood over his head and go back to the barracks. Alphonse would be waiting on him anyway, and he had endured about as much harassment as he could handle this week.

But, no, he couldn't run away . . . he had spent years teaching his little brother that running away from bullies is letting them win. What would it do to him to see his big brother slinking home, tail tucked between his legs just because the bullies were now jerks in blue uniforms, twice his size and rank?

No, he'd get court-martialed before he let that happen.

He slumped forward and ran a hand through his hair, wincing as it caught on a thread of gum and making tears sting his eyes.

He wouldn't cry.

The door thumped open and Ed instinctively jumped at the sound.

Mustang had returned, something tucked under his arm and a knife glinting in his hand.

Ed was immediately on his feet, cold dread gripping him.

"I told you I'm not going to cut it!" he shouted, scanning to room for some kind of escape. He could transmute the far wall off and climb down the side of the building—

Mustang was frowning at him and it gave Ed pause. The Colonel was looking at him as if he were a particularly unstable individual, dark eyes gauging and assessing. Wordlessly he brandished what had been tucked under his arm.

A jar of . . . peanut butter?

Ed stared, genius mind stuttering and racing to try to figure out what this meant. Why would he bring peanut butter to cut his hair?

Mustang seemed to sense his confusion. "It's peanut butter," he explained, slow and careful. "You can use it to get gum out of hair."

Once again, Ed felt like an idiot. "Oh," he mumbled, sitting down on the bench. "Wait, you're going to put that crap in my hair?"

Mustang settled on the bench beside him, popping open the jar and pulling a sleeve of crackers from his pocket. "And enjoy a nutritious snack, all at the same time," he said, dipping a cracker in the gooey substance and shoving it into Ed's surprised mouth. "Now shut up and turn around. I can't be gone long, or Hawkeye will hunt me down and force me back and gunpoint. And don't think the 'men only,' sign out front will keep her away."

Ed managed an indignant, muffled cry and fought to swallow the salty-sweet mass. After a moment's struggle, he finally swallowed and growled, "I could be allergic to this stuff!"

"Nonsense," Mustang said dismissively, scooping out a dollop of peanut butter and putting it on Ed's hair. "I read your file. The only thing you seem to be allergic to is intelligent conversation."

Ed grounded his teeth together, reminding himself that it was impolite to throttle people trying to help get gum out of your hair. "I can talk you in circles about things way over your head, Mustang!"

"And yet, all I ever hear is whining and ranting," he said with a sigh. "You would think someone as brilliant as you wouldn't have such a short fuse."

"I'm not short, you oversized smug jerk!" he hissed, hands balling into fists.

He watched Mustang smirk in the mirror. "Why, Fullmetal, I never implied that—"

"Yes you did! So shut up!"

Mustang chuckled but said nothing more for a few minutes. He tried to sit patiently while the colonel pulled and tugged at his hair, trying not to think about how surreal it all was. The last person Ed had envisioned coming to his aid was Mustang. The older man had made it seem that Ed was just another rung in his ladder up through the ranks, but this . . . well, Ed had never seen this side of him before.

The lavatory was silent save for the muffled noise from outside and a slow, inconsistent drip from a leaking pipe somewhere.

"So, how did you manage to get gum in your hair?"

The question took Ed by surprise. He stared blankly for a moment before his mind started racing. If he told Mustang what had been done, he would probably try to bring about justice somehow, which was all well and good, unless it involved bullies. If Ed had learned anything from his days on the playground, it was that getting the teacher involved resulted in one thing: more bullying.

"I, uh, was chewing it and spit it out and it got stuck there," he explained hastily.

Mustang gave the Ed in the mirror a bored sort of look. "Oh, really?"

Ed nodded.

"That's the dumbest story I've ever heard."

Ed bristled, unsure whether to be angry the Mustang had called his story stupid, or concerned that it wasn't believed. Ed knew he wasn't the best liar, but that was ridiculous.

He opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again, but no argument of any kind formed. He sighed and slumped over, propping his chin up with a metal hand. "It doesn't matter."

"Of course it matters. If it didn't matter, I wouldn't ask. So, which of the brainless imbeciles under Stark's command did this?"

His back stiffened. "How . . . how did you . . . ?"

Mustang raised his eyebrows. "Give me some credit, would you? I always seem to know what you're up to when you're off traipsing across Amestris. You think I don't see what's happening in my own backyard?"

"You . . . you know?" Ed felt a blush heat his cheeks. Just how much did he know?

Something in the older man's eyes became distant and hard. "I know enough. Which one was it? Or do I need to have Hughes track them down for me?"

Ed could just imagine how that would play out. "Winters," he admitted, ashamedly ducking his head, as if he could escape Mustang's scrutiny. The Colonel probably never had to deal with these kinds of things.

Ed had known from the beginning that being a kid in the military would be no picnic, but bullying was not something he had anticipated. He had always thought that it was something exclusive to children; something that only the immature found amusement in and that all adults knew better than to take part in it.

Boy was he wrong.

Roy's eyes narrowed in an expression Ed couldn't quite identify. It was something between fury and downright loathing. It vanished behind a cold mask before Ed could ponder it further. "I see. Well, consider it dealt with."

"Please don't do anything, Mustang!" Ed pleaded. "It'll just make things worse."

Roy stared at him through the mirror, onyx eyes unreadable, before turning back to the task before him. "How so?"

Ed looked away. "Just trust me, okay? I know what I'm doing. I'm not some helpless kid, Colonel. I can handle a stupid, ego-tripping jerk."

"You call this 'handling it?'" Mustang asked, holding up a blonde strand of matted hair to illustrate.

Ed scowled. "He snuck up on me. Come on, Mustang, this isn't your fight."

Roy seemed to ponder this, then a smirk crossed his lips. "Well, Winters doesn't have to know why he has latrine duty for the next six months, does he?"

"He's not under your command, though," Ed pointed out.

"That can be changed."

Edward suddenly found a new sort of fear for Colonel Roy Mustang. It seemed that he would go to great lengths to exact his passive aggressive revenge on errant soldiers, and Ed decided in that moment that he did not ever want to truly get on the older man's bad side.

"So, why the strong aversion to haircuts?" Roy asked absently, spooning another clump of peanut butter into Ed's hair. "A trim would do you some good, after this."

Ed felt himself shrinking. "I'm not getting a haircut," he announced flatly.

Roy's eyes flicked up to look at him in the mirror, clouded with a concerned sort of trepidation. "Well, does it give you super powers, or what?" he asked with a thin, forced smile.

Ed considered telling him it was none of his business.

He considered saying that he liked it long, thank you very much.

But Mustang was here, helping him and risking Hawkeye's wrath to do it. There were a million other things he could have been doing, and he was in an old, broken-down lavatory, helping Ed get gum out of his hair.

So Ed decided to tell him.

"Mom always liked it long."

Roy didn't ask him any more about it. "Oh."

It was true that his mother had liked long hair, and even though Ed knew the only reason was because of that man, he still couldn't help but feel the need to keep it. Somehow, cutting it felt like cutting the last ties he had to her, and without even Alphonse's face to remind him of her gentle smile, it was all he had.

It was stupid and childish, but he didn't care. He just didn't want to be truly alone.

He just missed his mother.

And just like that, he felt those stupid tears burning his eyes again.

"Hey, Ed, what's wrong?" Mustang said, voice edged with discomfort. "Hey, look, I'll get it out, I promise. You'll see, I've got most of it already, it'll be good as new in no time . . ."

For some reason, the very idea of Mustang trying to comfort him made the tears come even harder. Much to his horror, they started to spill over, splashing on top of his legs and sliding down the sides of his leather pants. He brought up a sleeve to wipe them away, but they just kept coming like a faucet left running.

Mustang had stopped messing with his hair at this point and put a gentle hand on Ed's automail shoulder. "Ed?" he asked uncertainly. "Come on, look at me."

Ed blatantly refused to turn around. This was simply not happening. He was not crying in front of his superior officer.

Except he was and he couldn't seem to stop.

"Its fine," Ed sniffled into his hands. "Its fine, Mustang." His voice cracked all over the place and he decided to save whatever dignity he still had left and shut his mouth.

Mustang didn't seem to be buying it. His grip became firm, and he turned Ed's shoulders so that he was facing forward on the bench. Ed kept his face buried in his palms and wished fervently that Mustang would leave him alone.

Instead of leaving, things got worse. Mustang put an arm around him and pulled him close.

Suddenly Ed was crying on Mustang's shoulder.

He tried to pull away, but Mustang wouldn't allow it, so Ed decided to focus all of his energies on stopping his stupid sniveling. That only seemed to make things worse, though, and his body shook with new sobs and he was tired of trying.

So he cried, and knowing this would come back to bite him made him cry even harder.

He was tired. He was tired of everything. He was tired of the responsibility of raising Alphonse by himself; so far all he had managed to do was lose his body and give empty promises to sustain him. He was tired of the insecurity of looking at a future so hazy and uncertain that thinking about it too long made him hopelessly depressed. He was tired of the pain of his automail, the rollercoaster of emotions as every hope of finding the Philosopher's Stone met dead end after dead end, and he was tired of being picked on and harassed because he was a kid and a soldier in a world that said you couldn't be both.

He was tired of being alone. Sure, Al was always right there by his side, but just knowing the things he had done put a barely perceptible distance between them. It was like being separated by a glass wall: they could talk and laugh and walk beside each other, but they were never together—not like they used to be, before Ed made them do the unthinkable and kill their mother a second time.

His mother . . . he really just wished his mother was there right now. She had always been there, wiping his tears and telling him it would be alright. He remembered she smelled like spring, and when she held him, all of his hurts seemed irrelevant. She would tell him it would be alright, and he believed her.

Instead, though, he had Mustang.

But the longer they sat there, the more Ed realized it wasn't all that bad. Mustang wasn't making fun of him. He wasn't smirking or making jokes, or anything of the sort. He just sat there, strong and silent, and somehow, Ed found it felt almost . . . safe. It felt safe and familiar, and somehow, it soothed that ache left by his mother's absence. It dulled the bite of loneliness just a bit, and for a moment, everything seemed almost bearable. For just a brief snippet of time, Ed felt like he wasn't so alone, and he let himself believe it.

It seemed a long while before his tears finally slowed into quiet sniffs and Mustang finally released him, pulling back to look him over with a concerned gaze. "Alright, kid," he said, voice gentle. "What's really going on?"

Ed kept his face turned away. "It's—"

"Say 'nothing,' and I'll set your dorm on fire."

Ed let a small smile curve his lips. "It's just . . ." he floundered, searching for an explanation that didn't sound too pathetic. "It's just kind of a lot right now," he sniffed, wiping his face on a sleeve. Stupid tears.

Mustang nodded as if he understood. "Things get like that sometimes," he agreed, staring ahead at the broken mirror. "Sometimes things get a bit rough, and it's perfectly alright to be upset about it."

Ed felt himself sinking again. "No it's not. Not when it's all my fault things are this way. And Al . . . he used to cry a lot. He'd cry and then he'd feel better, but now he can't. He can't cry at all. What gives me the right to come hide in here and feel sorry for myself when he can't even eat, or sleep, or feel the sun?" The more he thought about it, the more he hated himself. How dare he? How dare he, when the choices were his? He not only ruined his own life, but Alphonse's as well, and tenfold. How pathetic was he, to come hide in a bathroom crying about his hair and bullies, when he had put his little brother—his sweet, loving, precious baby brother—into that monstrous suit of armor?

He felt a dark, weary smile twist his lips. "He lost more than I did, and I'm the one that can't handle it."

The silence was tense for a moment, and it satisfied Ed somehow that Mustang didn't know what to say. He was finally understanding now. Mustang would understand what made Ed such pathetic, selfish filth, and maybe he would punish him for it. Perhaps he would leave Ed alone, stop protecting him. Maybe Ed would get just a taste of what he had earned, take just a step toward atoning for his sins.

Because deep down inside, Ed knew he deserved this. He deserved to be alienated and mistreated. He deserved to be hated and treated like scum. That's all he was. He didn't deserve Mustang's kindness. He didn't deserve Alphonse. He didn't deserve to have a father and he didn't deserve to have a mother. Not after what he had done.

He deserved this isolation, and it was crushing him with the weight of it all.

"You know you're not alone here, right?"

Ed wasn't expecting that.


Mustang just kept staring ahead at the broken, fractured mirror. The leaking pipe kept dripping somewhere in the bathroom and Mustang's hands laced together in his lap. "You're military now, Ed. You've got a brother that depends on you, and dreams that almost seem impossible. You're stuck in a world that expects you to act like a man, but Edward . . . Ed, you're only twelve. You're twelve, and you've got this mindset that it's all on you."

Ed frowned and opened his mouth to deny it, but Mustang cut him off with a warning glare. "But that's not how it is," he continued, turning back to the mirror. "I don't know how long you'll be in the military. It could be a few months, it could be twenty years, but I want you to know something."

Mustang turned to him again, but this time, his black eyes were shining with an intensity Ed hadn't seen before. Something about them made his insides thrum with the power they held. It was the kind of look that people changed their lives for, the kind that made people turn around and follow, and for a moment, Ed understood. He understood why this man had so many people under him willing to give their life for his. "You're mine now, Edward. You and your brother. You're my subordinate, even when you're not in the military. Those guys back there in the office? They're your siblings now. They're yours. We're not blood, but for most of us, this is the only family we can count on. And don't think that just because you're an annoying little brat it'll change anything. You're family now. You don't have to do this alone.

No one wants you to get your brother's body back more than we do," he said, turning away once again. "So it's okay if you can't handle it right now, kid. That's why we're here. And that's why I'm going to take care of this little harassment problem."

"Mustang . . ."

"You've got enough on your plate without having to worry about the dredges of society harassing you," the colonel said, a bit of steel entering his voice. "I'll take care of it so you can focus on what's important. And I expect," he said, giving him a sidelong glance, "that when the time comes, you'll do the same for any one of us."

Ed felt something in his chest that he hadn't felt in a long time. It was warm and comforting, like the feeling he sometimes got when the train pulled up in Resembool. There was a sense of home about it, a rightness he couldn't quite place.

Yes . . . home was a good word.

"Yes, sir," he said past a lump in his throat. "I will."

"Good. I can promise you that Winters and his ilk will never be a problem for you again," he said, that familiar smirk slowly overtaking his face. "Now, let's finish with your hair and send you on home. I'm sure Hawkeye is looking for me by now . . ."

They both suppressed a shudder. Ed turned around and Mustang got to work on the golden locks again.

No one noticed Hawkeye as she gently slipped back out and closed the door silently behind her. And no one noticed the ghost of a smile on her lips as she holstered her pistol and walked back down the hall.

It was about time Edward had a father figure to look up to.

And it was about time those boys had a family again.

Paternal Mustang fluff just for the sake of it xD

Lol the title . . . I don't even know xD

So dragoscilvio came to me with the idea of Ed dealing with bullies in the military early on in his service, and then they get gum in his hair, and then this whole thing unfolded xD I hope I did your idea justice, dear c: 'Twas fun, for sure xD A nice break from "Stairway to Paradise," and all of its angst.

I have the sudden desire to write an almost-crack fic again, but I have no ideas T_T

I leave for vacation after work tomorrow! *fist pump* I'm going to be tan, guys. It'll be great. I went to the park today, and I'm so pale I was reflecting the sunlight. People were shielding their eyes and crying for mercy.

Okay, maybe it's not that bad, but it's kinda bad xD

If you have the time, please drop a review, and I'll see you over in StP c:

God Bless,