The Colonel was sitting on the porch. Ed stood in the doorway and looked at him, quietly amused by how he and the dog had attached themselves to one another. Mustang sat with his back resting against an old wooden support beam, his long arms wrapped possessively around Den, and his face buried in the black fur of the dog's shoulder.
Mustang's automail had been connected without much incident, apart from his unexpected confession that left both him and Pinako trembling. It had been an intense thing for Ed to watch, even through the pain of his raw nerve-endings. The wrought-up catharsis flying between the two adults—even after Mustang had become too overcome to speak any further of his sin—was an awesome, powerful thing that Ed felt he should not be witnessing. After only the briefest of considerations, both he and Al left the room. Such raw declarations of guilt did not need spectators.
What happened after that, Ed did not know, but Mustang now had his automail and Pinako was sitting at the kitchen table, staring distantly into her pipe-smoke as if she were a prophet scrying for answers. When Ed had tentatively asked her if she was all right, she threw a cutting-board at him and tersely told him to check on the Colonel.
She was angry, but that was hardly surprising. One heartening fact about her anger, though, was that it was not directed at Mustang. She saw past the victimized Colonel, just as Ed and Al did, to the source of the grim orders that he had been forced to carry out. Pinako would never like Mustang; they would never be able to call one another "friend," but she did not blame him for the death of her child and his wife.
That, at least, was good.
"Hey." Edward said, leaning down and scratching behind Den's ear.
Mustang turned his head blearily to look at Ed, then grunted and pressed his face against the dog again. Den didn't seem to mind in the slightest, and was in fact deliriously glad just to be getting so much attention from the Colonel.
"Hurts like a bitch, doesn't it?" Ed grinned at the man, eyeing his new metal hands with a droll sort of empathy.
Mustang gave another, noncommittal grunt and Ed laughed. Den turned his head and sniffed the Colonel's hair, giving a small, compassionate whine.
"Come on, get up. Come with me."
"I'm not going anywhere." Mustang said flatly, his voice muffled by Den's coat.
"Oh, come on." Ed coaxed, playfully jabbing him in the leg with the toe of his boot.
"You have to."
"Physical therapy. Doctor's orders."
Mustang raised his head and glared at Ed incredulously. "Now? Already? I just had surgery a few hours ago!"
"Yeah, well, if you wait until tomorrow the joints are gonna freeze up. If you think it hurts now, that kind of stiffness makes it a million times worse, believe me. C'mon, let's go."
"I don't feel well, Ed." Mustang admitted after a brief pause.
Ed smiled ruefully, "I know it hurts, but it's nothing compared to what you've gone through lately, right?" When the Colonel did not deign to reply, Ed rolled his eyes and said, "It won't take that long, I promise . . . come on, I have to do it, too."
Mustang sighed heavily and looked at the dog as if to say, Do you see what a pest he is? Den swished his tail and licked the Colonel's face in consoling reply. Ed rolled his eyes at them again, then picked up a melon-sized rubber ball from the corner of the porch and meandered down the wooden steps.
Mustang stood with a huff, staggering slightly and looking a little irate as he followed Edward out into the yard. Den yawned, considered his options for a moment, and then decided to tag along, keeping close to the Colonel's side.
The sun above them was bright and warm, casting the damp field in a cheerful, inviting light. Everything around them was still a little wet from the previous day's rain, so that the ridiculously green grass around them seemed to shimmer a bit as they walked through it. The air was crisp and clean, and—Ed thought as he drummed his fingers idly on the blue-grey ball that he was carrying—nostalgically perfect in every way.
Den bounded ahead of them excitedly, heading toward a tree in the distance that regularly housed squirrels. Ed watched him sniffing around the trunk, wondering amusedly if the dog had ever actually managed to catch one of the quick little creatures.
Ed shook his head, looking back over his shoulder to make sure that the Colonel was still following him, then frowned slightly. Ed hadn't been able to tell in the shade of the porch, but in the sunlight Mustang looked awful. That wasn't really surprising, considering the fact that he always looked awful lately . . . but now he looked really awful. The man wasn't kidding when he said that he didn't feel well, and his words were reiterated by the pallor of his face.
Well, automail is not pleasant. Ed could remember the first time he'd been hooked up—actually, no he couldn't because he'd promptly fainted when his nerves were connected . . . but he remembered the pain afterward and it had been bad.
As bad as the pain must be for Mustang, though, it was important to work through it to avoid getting stiff. The swelling that the Colonel would have around his stitches tomorrow was going to be bad enough, but add that to creaky joints and it's like being stabbed repeatedly with something white-hot and very sharp.
Ed knew this from experience and would never, ever put off his physical therapy again if he could help it.
"So, what is this going to entail?" The Colonel asked skeptically as Ed slowed to a stop in the ankle-high grass. Ed turned and smiled at him brightly. He was going to try and make this as pleasant as humanly possible.
"Ah. Well, you see . . ." Ed began, taking on a very stuffy, very academic air. "This process is highly scientific. In fact, it's so advanced that I don't think you'll even be able to grasp it!"
Mustang raised his eyebrows as Ed struck a dramatic pose, holding the ball aloft in one hand and making his voice boom across the empty pasture. "Cities are built and destroyed on such concepts! We might cause riots with this process! Or crumble mountains! Or shatter—"
"Cut the crap, Ed." Mustang interrupted, smiling wryly. Well, at least he was smiling.
Ed sighed theatrically and dropped his arm, letting the ball fall to the ground, where it rolled to a stop at Mustang's feet. "We're gonna play catch."
The Colonel's eyebrows rose even further. "You're kidding."
"I am deadly serious!" Ed grinned. "It's a great, low-impact way for you to learn how to work your hands. Go on, toss it to me."
Mustang stared at him for a moment, looked as if he were about to say something, but then shook his head with an amused sort of resignation and crouched down to get the ball. The automail hands jerked spasmodically as he gripped the ball and straightened. Ed saw him wince, but the man quickly hid his discomfort. It would still be several days—if not a few weeks—before Mustang would be able to use his new hands as he normally would, and for now they would twitch and spasm painfully every time he moved them. The pain would lessen the more that he moved, but at the moment the agony must be scarcely tolerable.
Teeth clenched against the discomfort, the Colonel gave the ball a half-hearted toss in Ed's direction. The ball would have landed spectacularly short of its intended target but—through the cunning use of a mad dash that nearly made him trip over himself—Ed managed to catch it before it hit the ground.
"Oh, come on. You can do better than that." Ed chided with a smirk.
Mustang shot him a withering glare, but did not comment.
"Hm. Well, let's see if you can catch better than you can throw." The boy said, tossing the ball back in a soft, underhanded throw.
The Colonel fumbled it slightly, but managed to catch the ball without too much difficulty and threw it back. After a few more shaky rounds of catch-and-throw, the pair developed a good, mindless rhythm and Ed's thoughts wandered elsewhere.
He thought about Winry sitting up in her room, no doubt mulling over the horrifying things that Mustang had told her. He thought about Pinako and her quiet, guarded anger. He thought about Al—kind, sweet Al—who was probably sitting with Pinako at the kitchen table, asking her to tell him stories to get her mind away from her dark musings. And, of course, he thought about Mustang.
He was always thinking, always worrying about Mustang. It kept him awake at night and distracted him during the day, clouding his head with bleak, brooding thoughts. Now, though, the tiny glimmer of optimism that he'd been desperately clinging to since he and Al collected the Colonel's broken, bleeding form from Ishbal had become a bright beacon of hope. Mustang was getting better, in spite of the bad flashback that he'd had the day before and in spite of the pain he was clearly in now.
And—Ed realized with a tiny, joyful start—the man was even smiling a little as he tossed the ball. It was faint, but it was there.
Ed's heart leapt in his chest. Not only was the Colonel not really complaining about having to play catch with a kid while in so much pain, but he looked like he was starting to enjoy himself—was actually playing with Ed instead of just throwing the ball at him. God, it was so good to see that smile . . . it wasn't ironic or bitter or wistful like the other smiles that Ed had seen cross Mustang's face lately; it was a genuine, playful smile and—though it morphed momentarily into a grimace of pain as he caught the ball again—it was a beautiful, heartening sight. The man was healing, mentally and physically.
"I'm proud of you." Ed said suddenly, without really meaning to. The words just came out of his mouth without warning. Mustang paused, holding the ball in his glinting metal hands. He'd been staring tiredly off into space, his bleary eyes fixed vaguely on the horizon, absorbed in his own thoughts. But, at Ed's abrupt words the Colonel looked up at him incredulously.
" . . . What?"
"For . . . you know . . ." Ed stumbled, suddenly flustered, "For telling Winry and Pinako what happened. I know that must have been hard for you to do and . . . well . . . I'm proud of you."
Embarrassed, Edward waited awkwardly for the Colonel to say something. Ed didn't know why those words had come tumbling so unexpectedly from his mouth. They were true, Ed was proud of the Colonel's confession, but saying it aloud sounded inane and childish. Ed groaned inwardly and wished that he could retract the words. Mustang just looked back at him blankly, then shook his head as if trying to clear his thoughts.
"I think," The Colonel said slowly, "that we should go inside."
Ed blinked. Whatever he had expected Mustang to say, it hadn't been that. Was he just trying to change the subject? Had Ed offended him somehow?
"I didn't mean to upset you. Forget I said anything." Ed tried to mend quickly, his cheeks going a little pink.
Mustang looked at him for a moment as if he had absolutely no idea what he was talking about, then, "Oh. No, that's not it at all. I just . . . really don't feel well."
Ed flushed an even more impressive shade of pink and felt the smallest twinge of annoyance in his chest. Edward had just opened up to the man and said that he was proud of him, and Mustang didn't even seem to be paying attention. Then, Ed had to go and make an ass of himself because he'd interpreted the Colonel's inattentiveness as offense!
"I know you don't feel well." Ed said, not looking at Mustang and trying to bite back his ire, "But we have to do this."
"We can take a break in a few minutes, okay?"
"Edward . . ."
"Oh, stop whining and toss me the ball."
The boy looked up at the Colonel and his irritation evaporated. Mustang was swaying slightly were he stood, one hand against his clammy forehead as he returned Ed's gaze dazedly.
"I think I'm gonna pass out." He said blandly, almost wonderingly.
No sooner had the words left his lips, Mustang's knees buckled from under him and he pitched forward. Ed rushed toward him and managed to catch him by the shoulders before he could hit the ground.
"Whoa, easy!" Ed squeaked, lowering Mustang gently until he was kneeling on the damp grass, keeping a supportive hold on him to make sure that he didn't fall over entirely. Mustang's eyelids fluttered and he moaned softly, valiantly trying to fight off the swoon. Ed reached up and cupped the man's cheek in his left hand, cursing as he felt the feverish heat of his skin.
"Oh, man, you're burning up. Goddamn it, Colonel! We've talked about this, you're supposed to tell me when you have a fever!"
With some effort, Mustang raised his head and glared at Ed unfocusedly. "I told you that I wasn't feeling well, you little bastard. You just told me to suck it up, so I did. You can't get mad at me for that."
"Whatever!" Ed huffed, a little relieved that Mustang was still coherent enough to be a jerk. "Come on, let's get you inside."
After a few moments of difficulty, Ed managed to get Mustang onto his unsteady feet. The Colonel was leaning on Ed heavily as they made their slow trek back to the house, his arm around the boy's shoulders to keep himself from staggering too badly.
"I am so sick of this." The Colonel muttered dejectedly, pushing a few strands of him perspiration-damp hair out of his face.
"I know." Ed consoled, "You are getting better, though. I can tell. It's just taking some time, but you're definitely getting better."
Mustang snorted, frustrated and ill as he trudged forward. Then, the man's expression softened a bit, and Ed could feel the man's sidelong gaze on him. Ed turned to meet his eyes and saw something there that he'd never seen before. It was almost lamenting, but not quite. It was warmer, more respectful, but still a little sad. Perhaps . . . gratitude?
"Ed . . ." The Colonel began, but then stopped.
The Colonel hesitated and then shook his head again.
"You throw like a girl." He said finally.
Ed smiled to himself, Mustang's unspoken appreciation still managing to make itself heard in the soft tone of his voice.
"You, too, sir." The boy replied, smirking softly.
Winry soundlessly pushed the door open and paused, letting her eyes adjust to the dimness of the room. She entered huffily and moved over to the unconscious figure lying in the bed. Den, who was lying protectively across the man's legs, lifted his head as she came near and thumped his tail against the bed in greeting. Winry scratched his ears for a moment, and then turned to do her chore, unhooking the empty saline bag on the IV rack and replacing it with a fresh one. It was something that she had done a million times over in her years as an automail mechanic, but never before had she been so grudging to do it.
She looked down at Mustang's sleeping face and scowled. Why her? Why did she have to change his stupid IV? Winry shook her head and sighed. Well, it had to be done and Grams didn't seem to be in the mood for argument, so Winry had resignedly stormed away to undertake the task.
Ed had burst into the front room a few hours ago, half-carrying half-dragging the Colonel in with him. Apparently, the Military Dog had collapsed while they were doing some physical therapy. His fever had spiked again, but it was nothing too serious. It is not uncommon for patients to be a tad feverish after getting automail for the first time, but the fact that Mustang had been so ill before they'd even done the automail surgery made the shock to his system extra hard.
The man had been badly dehydrated, so after Ed dosed him with some foul-smelling medicine that the doctor in Youswell had prescribed him for fevers, they had decided it was best to hook him up with some intravenous saline. The Colonel, who had quickly been rendered insensible by the medicine, gave no protest and had actually dropped off into a drug-induced sleep before Grams had even put the IV in.
Now, hours later, the man was resting comfortably, although he'd probably have one hell of a headache when he woke up. Not that Winry cared. The jackass deserved a million headaches as far as she was concerned.
Winry took the damp cloth that had been placed on the Colonel's brow and dipped it in a bowl of cool water on the bedside table. She wrung it out and put it back on the Colonel's head then, taking the empty IV bag, turned to leave the room.
" . . . I stole the picture."
The sudden, slurred words startled Winry. She jumped and spun around.
Mustang's eyes opened groggily in response to her question, landing on her in a confused, unfocused way. He was still very intoxicated by whatever drug Ed had given him and was clearly having trouble organizing his thoughts. He didn't realize that he'd spoken his words aloud.
"You said something about a picture." Winry reminded him, "What did you say?"
The Colonel regarded her for a moment then closed his eyes again. "Nothing. I'm just . . . babbling. It's the medicine." He mumbled, the edges of his words softened by sleep and mild delirium.
"No, I want to know what you said." She pressed haughtily, "What picture?"
For a long while Mustang didn't say anything. His eyes were closed and his breathing was slow and steady. Thinking that he'd dozed off again, Winry sighed her irritation and moved to exit the room. When she put her hand on the doorknob, though, he spoke again.
"The picture of you that your mother was holding when she died. I stole it." He said slowly, his voice distant and dreamy in a way that made Winry think that he wasn't really awake. "I still have it, if you want it back."
Winry froze, one hand still on the doorknob, a cold rock of wary confusion and grief solidifying in the pit of her stomach.
"Why . . . why would you take that?" She asked when she found her voice.
"I don't know . . . It would have just been thrown away if I hadn't. I didn't want that to happen. It didn't seem right."
" . . . Oh." Was all she could think to say. She stood in the doorway, the light from the hall silhouetting her slender frame and casting pale splotches of light on the bed and its occupant. "Colonel . . ?" She ventured tentatively after a long, breathless pause.
Mustang made a small, mewling sound like a child dreaming, but did not reply. He was way out of it and probably wouldn't even remember this brief, heart-twisting conversation that they'd just had when he finally awoke.
Winry shook herself and then moved out into the hallway, leaving the door slightly ajar so that Den could leave the room if he wanted to. She leaned herself back against the wall next to the door and covered her mouth with her hand, closing her eyes tightly as a wave of sick anger and sorrow slammed into her. It wasn't fair. It was just not fair.
The girl opened her eyes to find Al approaching her, one hand stretched toward her with concern.
"Are you okay?" He asked.
Winry looked at him for a moment, then ran to him with a tiny, fragile cry escaping her throat. She pressed her face against his cold metal chest and fought the overwhelming impulse to cry like the little girl she had been when Colonel Roy Mustang had taken her parents from her. Al was startled at first by her sudden, passionate outburst, but didn't say anything, instead opting to wrap his arms around her as she trembled and gasped through her sorrow.
"It's not fair." She choked, voicing the words that were running through her head in a mad cacophony of rage and anguish. "I finally had someone that I could blame it on. I finally had someone that I could direct my anger toward . . . and I can't even be angry with him. I actually feel sorry for him . . .! He killed my parents—murdered my family, and I pity him! It's not fair! It's not fucking fair!"
"He didn't want to do it, Winry." Al said softly, running his huge metal hand up and down her back soothingly. "There wasn't any malice behind it, or anything. I know it must be hard, and it's okay for you to be confused . . ."
"Don't patronize me, Al." She spat, her face still buried in his chest. Al sighed and hugged her more tightly. Winry replied to his sigh with one of her own, blinking back the tears of frustration that were still threatening to overflow from her eyes.
Al's cold metal body was calming against her skin; she had always preferred the feel of metal over the feel of flesh, a fact that kept her distant from most of her friends outside of Ed and Al. Metal didn't get hurt. Metal didn't bleed. Metal didn't die. It was hard and strong, sleek and flawless. I was cold and perfect and didn't ask anything from her. If only her loved ones were as sturdy. If only she could encase them all in tempered steel, adorn them entirely with automail to keep them safe. Then she wouldn't have to worry about them, or cry herself to sleep at night when she lost them.
Quietly, Winry told Al about the picture that Mustang had taken. The boy listened attentively to her helpless, unsettled words, then gently pushed her away from him so that he could look her in the eye. Al was silent for a moment, then:
"The world has forced Colonel Mustang to do some terrible, unforgivable things, Winry. It has turned him into something that many people despise and many more people fear. If I've learned one thing through this whole experience with him, though, it's that he's a good man."
"I know," She whispered, looking away from him, "but I still wish that I could hate him. I wish that he could at least have left me with that."
Al nodded slowly, understanding and perhaps even empathizing with her feelings.
"Come on." Al said finally, his habitual brightness creeping back into his speech, no doubt in an attempt to lighten Winry's mood. "Aunt Pinako wanted me to tell you that dinner is ready, and if you don't get down there soon, you just know that Brother is going to eat it all."
Winry favored him with a watery smile and—after a furtive glance at the partially-open door behind which the Colonel was dreaming silently—she followed Al down the stairs, her dark thoughts pushed to the back of her mind for the time being. She would deal with them later, when she had solitude and time in which to examine her bleak, jumbled thoughts.
For now, though, she forced a smile onto her face and sat with her "brothers" at the kitchen table, painfully glad to be surrounded by family again, even if it would only be for a little while.
b ((A/N: One more chapter to go, people! I'll try to have it up in a few days. Thank you all for your awesome reviews! I really appreciate them.)) /b