Ed lay curled up in bed and tried to think. He and Al had been put to bed by Mr. Hawkins, who'd said that their mother would be home in a little while and that they should stay in bed. Ed wanted to groan. His head was none too clear and he was having the worst time focusing his thoughts, but he had to think.
The more time they spent in this house, the more tired they became. That was clear. If he became much more tired he wouldn't be able to think or plan at all, and their safety might depend on their wits. Yet, they knew nothing about her, and that was worrisome. They didn't know who she really was, how she'd brought them there or why, or if she had kidnapped them under someone else's instructions. Ed was a State Alchemist, and State Alchemists weren't always the safest of people. There were plenty of groups out there who worked against the State and he knew that any of those groups would consider it quite a coup to kidnap a State Alchemist and hold him for ransom. That was the problem, though. This woman hadn't asked for ransom, and she'd told them where they were and even gave them a chance to contact people by letting them go out on their own. Ergo, she wasn't your run-of-the-mill kidnapper.
But what was she, though? What did she want? Why did she pretend to be their mother?
None of it made any sense.
Fighting against his stronger inclination to curl up and close his eyes, Ed pulled himself out of bed and moved to Al's side, shaking him.
"What?" his little brother moaned, cracking open one eye.
"Come on, Al, we have to find Colonel Mustang and Major Armstrong," Ed said, fighting off a yawn.
"I'm tired, Brother," Al complained, sitting up. "Can't we rest a little more?"
"Not if we want to see them today," Ed told him. "Besides, that woman's not here yet. We can go and come back before she comes. I'll feel better if we've spoken with them before tonight."
"All right," Al muttered, but he got up and pulled on his shoes. Together, the boys made their way downstairs and out onto the street and headed for town. They passed the greengrocer's and the post office and they were passing a sidewalk café when Ed heard someone call his name. He turned, and there were the Colonel and Major, sitting there with cups of coffee.
"That was easy," Ed remarked as he took a seat at their table and Al sat beside him. "It's good to see you guys."
"How are you two feeling?" Major Armstrong asked, looking with concern at the two boys.
"We're both tired," Ed told him. "Really sleepy all the time. Don't know why."
"Maybe she's giving you something in your food?" Colonel Mustang suggested. "That could be why you're so tired."
"Yeah, but how are we going to explain suddenly losing our appetites to her?" Al asked, putting his head down on the table. "The only way we'd be able to avoid taking whatever it is would be to stop eating, and that's kind of impossible. And why would she do that anyway?"
"To keep you under control," Mustang told him. "It's easier to control two active young boys if they spend most of their time asleep."
"Makes sense," Ed said, fighting to keep his eyes open. "Part of me is telling me to get away from here now, but another part of me wants to find out what she wants with us, who she is, and why she kidnapped us."
"How about we limit our stay here to a week, and whether you've found out anything or not, we go once the week's up," Armstrong suggested, signaling to a waiter. He ordered two cups of coffee for the boys, feeling certain that it would help them to wake up some. Half-asleep Elrics weren't going to get them far in this investigation.
Once the boys had had some coffee, they did seem to wake up a bit. They discussed a plan where the boys would stay with the woman until they'd learned something and they decided that the boys would send a signal or message to the two adults once they were ready to leave. If there was any problem, the boys were to get away from that house immediately and find the two alchemists in their hotel, from which they would board a train and head back to Central.
"We'll walk you back part of the way," Colonel Mustang said, getting to his feet. "I want to see where this house is. I'll feel better if I do."
Neither boy argued as they led the way back. A block from the house they stopped, pointed it out to the two men, and walked the last block on their own. As soon as they opened the door, however, they realized that they were in trouble. She stood in the kitchen doorway, hands on her hips, and she was glaring at them.
"Mr. Hawkins told me that you two were in bed upstairs," she said, angrily tapping her foot. "Now, imagine my shock and worry when I realized those two beds were empty! Where have you two been, and why didn't you let me know where you were going?"
"Ah, we thought that we'd be back before you got home," Ed explained, standing in front of Al to shield him, just in case.
"And where did you go?"
"Just to town," Ed said, trying to make it seem like it was nothing big. "We were both a little tired of lying around in bed, and we figured a walk would do us good. It did, too. We both feel better."
What happened next was so unexpected that neither boy knew what to do. Within a moment she had knelt and enveloped them both in a hug. "Next time, don't scare me like that," she said. "Please."
"Um, sure," Ed said at last, too surprised to do or say anything else.
She let them both go at last and stood up. "Well, since you're both feeling better, you can help me get supper together."
Neither boy had to ask if she were punishing them or still angry. No, she was reacting to her fright by keeping them close to her, so neither brother protested. She could always send them to their room or something similar, so helping in the kitchen wasn't too bad.
Supper was a chicken, mushroom, and rice casserole, and both brothers were very hungry. Unfortunately, they remembered what Major Armstrong had suggested about the drug being in their food, so they didn't eat as much as they wanted, nor did they eat more than what would just make them slightly sleepy.
"Are you two all right?" she asked as they washed up afterwards. "You didn't eat very much."
Ed shrugged. "I'm stuffed."
"Me, too," Al insisted.
"Well, if you feel all right…" she said doubtfully, looking at them as if to see if something were wrong.
"Just getting a little tired, but then, it's been a long day," Ed said, pretending to feel tired so she wouldn't be suspicious.
It seemed to work, and she suggested they go to bed early. They endured a good night kiss from her and went upstairs, making sure their door was firmly closed to make sure she couldn't hear them.
"What do you think?" Ed asked, wishing he had a sandwich or something up here with him. He was still starved!
"I think Major Armstrong was right about the food," Al said, sounding very regretful. "I'm sleepy, but I'm not as tired as I was. My head's clearer, too."
"Yeah. Scary, isn't it? A lady who says she's our mother who drugs us at every meal."
Both brothers looked at one another, and Al was the first to give vent to his feelings. Ed, not wishing to see Al cry, sat down beside his brother and put his arm around him in an attempt to calm him.
"Why?" Al blurted. "What does she want from us, and why did she bring us here? Why is she doing this to us?"
"I don't know, and I wish I did," Ed said, trying to calm himself and Al down. "We'll figure it out, I promise you, and then we'll be able to go on with our lives and forget all about this."
"Brother, no offense, but this is going to be very hard to forget."
"I know," Ed admitted sadly. "But we can handle this. We've been able to handle everything else the world's thrown at us, and we can handle this. Let's get some rest, Al, and then we'll work on finding stuff out."
They went to bed after that, and Ed waited until Al was asleep before getting up. He had to do some investigating, and the whole situation was hard enough on Al without having to sneak around. He would let his younger brother get some sleep while he worked on finding out things. Hopefully, he would be able to learn enough so that they could leave in the morning. This house was getting too risky for them both.
He crept down the hall to the woman's bedroom, certain that she was still downstairs. He could hear the radio playing very softly, so it was likely that she was down there listening to it. He reached her door and slipped inside the room, certain that there was something in there that would tell him who she really was and what she wanted with them. He checked under all the furniture, in all the books, and he was just heading toward the closet when a floorboard creaked behind him, making him whip around.
"Where did you come from?" he yelped, staring at her.
She gave him a cold smile and advanced until he was backed up against the wall. For the first time since waking up in her house, Ed was afraid of this woman.
"What are you doing in here, Edward?" she asked, pushing his braid back over his shoulder. "Hmmm? More importantly, why aren't you sleeping? Al is asleep."
"I was looking for something to read, and I've read everything in our room," he lied quickly, hoping that she wasn't good at detecting lies.
She smiled, raising an eyebrow. "You're lying to me, Edward, and hoping that I won't realize it, aren't you? What's the real reason?"
"Umm…" He didn't know what to tell her that she would believe. He didn't know why, but he was becoming more frightened by the moment.
"Maybe you really wanted to talk to me since you couldn't sleep," she said, stepping back, and Ed let out a sigh of relief.
"Well, kind of," he said, pouncing on the way out she'd given him.
She gave him an odd smile. "Well, since you can't sleep, I'll tell you a story. Maybe after that you'll feel like being a good boy and going to bed."
Ed gritted his teeth. This woman was so weird! One moment it seemed like she was going to kill him and the next, she was treating him like a naughty kid! What was she really, dangerous woman or loving mom?
She sat down on the edge of the bed and patted a spot next to her, inviting him to sit down. As soon as he sat, she put a blanket around him. "So you won't be cold," she said. "Now, what kind of story shall I tell you? Oh, I know. One about two little boys."
Ed resigned himself to being polite and listening to her. After a few sentences, he realized that this story was beginning to sound very, very familiar.
"Once, not so long ago, there were two little boys who lived with their mother in a tiny town out in the country. They loved one another very, very much. Both little boys were very smart, and they had a talent for alchemy, which their mother encouraged. Unfortunately, their mother was sick, and before long, she died. The boys were heartbroken, and they wanted nothing more than to bring her back," she stopped then and looked at him. "What's the matter, Edward?"
"N-nothing," Ed stammered, wondering where she was going with this.
"Well, if nothing's wrong, then I'll continue," she said, giving him yet another odd smile. "After their mother's death, the boys studied with a teacher, intending to learn enough to bring their mother back from the dead. Once they had learned all they could, they returned to their home and they gathered all they would need to bring her back. Now, the older brother was the one who had had the idea to bring their mother back, so he began the alchemy that night despite the fact that it was forbidden. He cared only about his mother and having her again. Unfortunately, something went wrong, and he learned why it was forbidden."
Ed fought down shivers. Oh, this was awful, but she continued, oblivious to his discomfort.
"The younger brother lost his body, taken in equivalent exchange for his mother, and the older brother lost his leg. In the center of the transmutation circle there lay something, and the older brother, thinking it was his mother, crawled toward it. When he saw what it was, he screamed and backed away, horrified by what he had made. He worked other alchemy to bind his brother's soul to a suit of armor, and to get his brother's soul back he lost his arm in equivalent exchange. The brothers worked very slowly to get their lives back together and move on. They burned their home, and the older brother became a State Alchemist in order to find a way to restore his younger brother's body. They managed this, and they continued with their lives, and neither brother ever thought about what they had made that night."
"How do you know all this?" Ed demanded, shaking and wishing he could get his legs to work. He was shaking so hard he couldn't move.
"Hush, dear, I'm not finished yet," she said, laying a finger across his lips to quiet him. "That's not the end of the story. What neither brother knew was that they had succeeded in some odd way, but the creature they had made was not their mother. It was a sort of copy of her, and it had her memories. At first, it was convinced that she was their mother, and she was shocked and hurt that her elder son had screamed and backed away from her when all she wished was to take him in her arms. Slowly, while the brothers stayed at a neighbor's that night so the older brother's injuries could be cared for, the creature crept away from the house and to a place in the woods where she would be safe. The creature finished forming and realized just what it was and who its creators were and why they had made her. She had a purpose from that, and wherever the boys went, she followed them in some form, making sure they were all right. She couldn't help loving them and watching over them, but she suppressed those urges. However, those urges grew stronger with each passing day, and one day she couldn't bear not being their mother any longer. Disguising herself, she took them both to a little house she'd bought, and she wished to keep them there with her and be the mother that the boys had wished to bring back."
Ed made it to his feet and ran to the door, but she was much faster than he was and made it there first, blocking his way. Horrified, Ed backed away, looking desperately for another exit.
"Now, don't you think that naughty little boy who performed forbidden alchemy should take some responsibility for his actions?" she asked, advancing. "After all, he created me, and he gave me a purpose. Shouldn't he allow me to fulfill that purpose?"
"You're…you're that thing?" Ed gasped in disbelief. "But it wasn't even human! How can you look like you do now?"
She chuckled. "Weren't you listening? I wasn't fully formed when you saw me. I am now, though. Don't I look just like your mother? Sound like her? Act like her? I even use your old pet name, don't I, my little man?"
"But you're not her!" Ed cried, not noticing the tears running down his face. He was terrified, and he was far too frightened to worry about or notice them.
The woman shook her head. "No, I'm not, but I'm as close as you're going to get," she said, stepping even closer while Edward backed away. "You wanted your mother back, and now you have something very like her, and that something is more than happy to be her for you and your brother."
Ed could only shake his head and stare at her, horrified.
"Why not let me be your mother, Edward? Why not? I've seen you wish for your mother countless times, and I've seen you wish you could be just a plain child again even more. No State Alchemist duties, no worry about who's going to take care of Al, and no worry about all the intrigue that goes on in the State. Think about it, Ed. All you've ever wanted can be yours if you just accept me," she told him, stepping forward until he was again against a wall and unable to go anywhere else. "Why not, hmm? I can tell that's what you want. Right now you want it so much it hurts. Why not end the pain?"
"Because it would be a lie," he gasped out, fighting off sobs.
"I don't think so," she said. "You brought a mother back who cares for you and Al. What would be the lie in that?"
"Because you're not our mother," Ed sobbed, losing the battle to keep from crying outright. His legs gave way and she caught him, lifting him in her arms a moment later and carrying him to the bed, where she sat down and held him while he cried. He cried so hard the entire bed shook, but she held him as gently as if he were made of fragile glass and might break at any moment.
"I can be, and I'm more than willing to be," she said, smoothing his hair in a calming gesture. "Just let me be so, Edward, that's all I ask. Let me mother you and love you."
"You're not human," Ed said, not willing to pull away from her. "You can't be. What are you, a homunculus?"
She nodded. "I am, but there's one good thing about that. I can't get sick, and I can't die. You won't lose me."
Those words reminded Ed of his mother's death, and the memories of that were too much on top of the emotional storm he'd been undergoing. He let himself cry then as he hadn't cried for years. He let out all his anguish and worry and grief, and even when that was spent, the sobs kept coming. All the while she held him and rocked him back and forth, just as his mother had done when he'd been little and overwhelmed by some childish grief. Finally, the flood of tears reduced itself to a river, and then a trickle. She wiped his face with a handkerchief and gave him a warm smile. "That's better, isn't it, my little man?"
Unable to speak, he nodded.
"I'm going to put you in your bed now," she said, standing up and carrying him out of the room. "You go to sleep and in the morning we'll tell Al and talk some more, all right?"
She tucked him in and gave him a kiss on the forehead before going to Al and doing the same to him. As she left, she turned in the doorway and said, "Good night, little man. See you in the morning."
"Good night," Ed said softly as the door closed. Once her footsteps had faded away he began to count. Once he'd counted out an hour, he started over and counted another hour. When that hour was done, he got out of bed and dressed after waking Al and telling him that they had to leave. Al did not ask questions, but he dressed as quickly as his brother did. Together, they managed to climb out their window, and only when they reached the street did Al ask where they were going and why they were going in the middle of the night.
"We're leaving," Ed told him. "We have to. It's too dangerous to stay here any longer. She's a homunculus, Al, and she's centered on us."
"What?" Al gasped, stopping in his tracks. "But why?"
"I'll tell you once we see the major and colonel. I don't want to have to tell it more than once."
"So, Full Metal, what was so important that you felt you had to tell us at one in the morning?" Colonel Mustang growled. He, the Elrics, and Major Armstrong were in the soldiers' hotel room, drinking tea in an effort to keep awake.
Ed set aside his tea and took a deep breath. He was not looking forward to this. "You know what we did, Colonel, that night you came to Risembool. That failed transmutation. It failed to bring our mother back, but it did not fail to produce something."
Al looked at him, not understanding. "Brother?"
"That woman is a homunculus, and she's the result of that transmutation. That's why she's so much like our mother. Homunculi are like copies or echoes of the person you are trying to transmute, and they'll have some of that person's memories and personality as well. But, as we've learned, they're also dangerous. Unpredictable. Her urge to be our mother became so strong that she kidnapped us and brought us here in order to get us away from the State. This place is kind of small and isolated. The military wouldn't think to look for us here. She's also been drugging us, just like you guys thought she was."
Al stared at him. "But if she has Mom's memories and personality..."
"Would Mom kidnap us or drug us?"
"No," Al admitted.
"Then she's not our mother, Al," Ed said, shivering. "Although..."
Major Armstrong looked at him sympathetically. "Although?"
"Although I wish she was!" Ed gasped, and next thing he knew, he was sobbing.
Al's arms went around him, supporting him, and despite being the elder brother, Ed flung himself onto Al's shoulder and let himself cry for the second time that night. This period of crying didn't last as long as the first one, and he was calmer a lot quicker than he had been earlier.
"What the hell's wrong with me?" he said at last, accepting a handkerchief from Major Armstrong. "All of a sudden I'm a crybaby!"
Colonel Mustang, just itching to make a comment, kept his mouth shut only Herculean effort and staunch determination. It was Major Armstrong who offered a reason.
"You have been through a lot the past few days, and all of those emotions have to come out somehow," he said gently. "There's nothing wrong with crying."
Ed didn't answer, but he thought about it.
"Well, sitting around isn't getting us back to Central," he said, standing up and stretching. "I'm going to go make some arrangements for a car to take us to the next large town and then we'll take the train. Try to get some rest, you two," he told the Elrics. "Major, you're on guard duty until I get back."
The major stood up very straight and saluted. "Sir!" Once the colonel was gone, Ed and Al were bedded down in Major Armstrong's room for a quick nap. They fell asleep for maybe a half-hour, which was how long before the colonel came back, saying the car was waiting and they had to leave that minute. Once they were in the car, the boys went back to sleep, and the two men carried them onto the train, letting them sleep. They were on their way back to Central.
Once they got there, however, they would have to think of what to do about the homunculus.