Humanity's Only Crime
Edward Elric looked up in surprise as he heard the library's booming clock bell toll midnight. It's that late already?? He hadn't meant to stay for so long! His younger brother Alphonse was probably furious with worry! With that thought firmly planted in mind, he scurried about madly, throwing on his trademark red trench coat and grabbing up the books he'd been studying, tucking them under one arm and heading for the shelves where he'd found them. Alphonse was going to be so mad! He'd promised to be home before ten o'clock! Where was all the time going these days? He wove his way in and out of the book aisles, his feet being guided by some instinctive force as he hurriedly tried to formulate some excuse that would get him off the hook. So distracted was he by his own thoughts, that he was completely caught off guard when he turned the corner around some bookshelves and found none other than Colonel Roy Mustang, the Flame Alchemist sitting at a table, surrounded by mounds of books with his hands folded neatly before him and his forehead resting against his hands, eyes hidden from view. Thinking the man was either asleep or deep in thought, and having no time to risk falling prey to the man's scathing sarcasm once again, he moved to the shelves to the man's left as quietly as possible to return his books to them.
As he stood there reading the titles and silently alphabetizing the books he held in his arms, he suddenly perceived a strange noise coming from his left; a most curious sound indeed. It took him a moment to realize that the noise was the sound of someone crying, and that the source of the crying was Colonel Mustang. Edward turned his head very slowly, eyes wide in an expression mingling somewhere between shock, surprise, and abject horror. Wait…Colonel Mustang? Crying? Did those two concepts even exist in the same sentence, much less the same universe as one another? Edward stood blinking in astonishment for a long moment, confirming with his own two eyes that, yes indeed, Colonel Mustang was actually crying. The man was quiet about it, the sound muffled by the grip his teeth had on his lower lip. His shoulders trembled in a motion that was so minute that only a very close inspection could have picked it up. Thin streams of crystalline tears traced staining lines down the sides of his cheeks, glistening lightly in a way that made them barely noticeable.
For a moment, Edward thought about just putting his books back and going on his way. Obviously, the man was trying to hide his pain—for why else would he be so quiet about his tears?—and Edward was feeling very awkward about having stumbled upon the man's private moment. No doubt, he'd probably end up with his back end in flames just for being in the breathing vicinity of the man. And yet…for some reason, Edward couldn't make himself walk away. The longer he stood there, the more he thought that he should go over and try to do something, anything. But he didn't know what he could say or what he could do, and his indecision kept him rooted to the spot. Finally, he screwed up his courage and moved forward, his mind still grappling confusedly with the conundrum. He was surprised by his own hesitation. Should he make it seem like he'd just come across the man by accident, not acknowledging his tears, or should he ask him what was wrong? Suddenly he began to question the wisdom of his actions, but by that point he was too late, had fully committed himself to the course, and before he knew it, his feet had positioned him directly next to the man.
"Colonel?" he queried softly, almost afraid to bother the man. Mustang jumped slightly in surprise and looked up at the young man, blinking in a manner that mixed confusion with speechlessness.
"Are you okay?"
He saw the man struggle for a moment to compose himself.
"Yes, Fullmetal. I'm alright."
Edward looked at his shoes, feeling like an idiot. Why did he bother to come over here in the first place? It had been a dumb idea from conception, and yet, for some reason, something inside of him refused to let things go.
"Are you sure?" he asked uncertainly, positive that the man was lying to him—which bothered him for some reason he couldn't put his finger on. For a moment, Mustang was about to reply in the affirmative just to get the kid away from him, until he really looked at the boy's face. He could read the boy's awkwardly mixed emotions and mild disappointment at being lied to. The underlying concern for him in Edward's youthful features surprised the man—why would this boy of all people care about him?—and at the same time…it was touching. It really meant something to him to realize that he was one of the few people Edward considered worthy of his time to worry about. Taking all of this into account, he decided that this time—and only this time because he couldn't afford such shows of weakness—he wouldn't lie to the kid.
"Actually…" he began, before sighing ruefully and scratching his head. "I'm not."
Edward looked up in surprise.
"Oh?" he said for lack of anything better to say. Mustang studied him for a moment before smirking. The more he thought about it, the more he realized that the matter was trivial to begin with. Better to get the kid on his way and put the whole thing behind him.
"Nevermind, Fullmetal. Don't bother yourself with it. It's late. Shouldn't you be getting home?"
Edward was about to follow his superior's orders, and a part of him screamed that he shouldn't question his fortunes; he should just run and stop standing there like an idiot. But another part of him reflected on everything this man had done for him, and it kept him there against his will. He glanced suddenly at the book lying open before the man on the table, and suddenly, the mysterious curtain that always seemed to surround the Flame Alchemist lay wide open.
"Does it have to do with what happened in Ishbal?"
Mustang stared at the boy in complete shock, wondering how in the world he could have…but then he remembered the book lying before him, and he took only the briefest of glances at it before turning a rueful smile to the boy's eyes.
"You're very observant," he said, and then he sighed. "Yes, it's about what happened in Ishbal."
Edward took a seat opposite the man, tawny yellow eyes searching his face questioningly.
"Do…do you want to talk about it?"
Mustang studied the boy for another long, contemplative moment. This was no doubt killing him, poor kid. He knew that Edward was an honest-to-goodness nice kid at heart, but he knew that the boy felt very uncomfortable in any situation that focused on emotions; his own included. But still…the boy was at least trying. That counted for something. He picked up his pen and looked at Edward with an expression that somewhat resembled the gentle sternness of a schoolteacher about to give a lecture.
"How much do you know about Ishbal, Fullmetal?"
"Not much, sir. Only bits and pieces. I've tried to learn as much as I can, but no one seems to want to talk about it."
Mustang nodded absently, and his coal black eyes didn't see the table before them, but saw past them, back to a time he'd hoped to forget but one that would remain etched in his vision forever.
"It was…a bad war."
Edward waited expectantly for the man to continue, recognizing his part as the silent receptacle to the man's contemplations.
"So much death…so much unbridled killing…"
He shook his head.
"Was there really a need for so much killing?"
He paused again, musingly.
"There sure is a lot of blood in people," he blurted out a moment later, and they were the words of a much younger man who still hadn't fully comprehended the scope of what he'd done. He looked up at Edward as if suddenly remembering where and who he was, or perhaps he was doing it to gauge the boy's reaction. When there was no forthcoming rejection to his line of thinking, the man launched himself back into the memories.
"I killed a lot of men in those months, far too many for me to possibly count or even remember. Men like me, and their brothers, their fathers…their sons, their cousins…their friends. People who talked and walked and had blood flowing through their veins like I did. Their faces have started to blur together now…but in a way…that doesn't matter. They were all the same anyway…all of them had faces of living, breathing human beings who felt the same emotions I did, who had come into the world much as I had, who had families who loved them and people who needed them."
"They were as afraid of me as I was of them."
He shook his head, brow furrowing.
"I still see their eyes staring up at me, asking me why they had to die, wanting to know why today of all days had to be their last."
He clenched his fist tightly.
"And I had no answers to give them," he spat out in the venomous tone of someone who had been betrayed by someone in whom he'd placed his ultimate trust. "I couldn't tell them why I was killing them, only knew that I must destroy them or risk being considered a traitor…and possibly killed."
The man put a hand against his forehead as if he had a headache.
"Why didn't I say no?? Why didn't I stop the cycle with me, stand against what I knew was wrong?? Why did I let them use me that way, strip me of my pride and my dignity…rob me of my innocence??"
His tone was honestly and unabashedly hurt.
"All of my devotion betrayed…" he muttered. "And for what?"
Edward said nothing, having no answers for the man and knowing somehow that the man wasn't really looking for them.
"But the truth is…I just did what they ordered because I was too scared to do what was right, to do what needed to be done. I was too much of a coward to speak up. I had seen what they'd done to the ones who spoke up, the ones who stood against them…I had to kill a few of them. And I didn't want that for myself. So I did what they told me. I killed so many people…and for what?"
He stared as his own hands for a moment as if he didn't even know them.
"For some cause they'd never really explained?? Some stupid reason that, to this day, I still don't understand?? We didn't fight a war. We massacred them. We invaded their lands and took their lives for no good reason whatsoever."
He sighed and he clenched his hands into fists.
"Hero of Ishbal, they call me," he said. "I don't know why, but that's what they call me. But I'm no hero."
His brow furrowed angrily.
"I'm just a murderer who can never wash the blood of innocents off his hands."
He paused and his eyes looked down at the map of Ishbal screaming out from the book in front of him.
"We were all just a bunch of murderers. And someday, our guilt will be so obvious that we'll have to pay for all of our crimes…and what crimes I have committed, Fullmetal. What terrible crimes, indeed."
A long pause extended into the empty space between the man and the boy, and Mustang was content to let it stay there, resolved on his position. But, then Edward shifted uncomfortably in his seat, looking as if he were trying to swallow something bitter and was having great difficulty with it.
"And…what are those crimes, sir…if you don't mind me asking?"
Mustang stared at him in shock for a moment. Had he not been listening?
"I was a coward! I didn't stand up against them when I knew that I should have!! I killed people undeserving of my wrath!! Those crimes, Fullmetal!! What other crimes are there??"
Edward sighed like one exasperated with a small child, and he looked Mustang dead in the eyes, pinning him in place with those golden, all seeing orbs.
"If being scared is your only crime, Colonel…then you have done nothing for which you should be ashamed."
"I did nothing…and for that I am ashamed!!"
"Colonel…you were afraid…that's normal. That's natural. It's…well…it's human. It's what we do."
The man stared at the boy in horror before the young man sighed somewhat frustrated and pushed back some of his golden blonde hair in one absent motion.
"Look, whether we want to realize it or not, we are the center of our own universes. I'm the center of mine, and you're the center of yours, and no matter how hard we try, we can never change that. See, Colonel, we can only see the world through our own eyes, and when those eyes see something that might threaten our centers…we get scared. We hide. We run. Whatever, we just do it. And do you know why, Colonel?"
The man couldn't say anything, just shook his head.
"We do it because of basic survival instincts. We are motivated towards the preservation of our own lives. Because we've only got one! If that life ends, we're screwed. There are no do-overs in this world, unfortunately. So, when our lives are threatened, we get scared and we do whatever is within our power to do in order to preserve our own lives."
He shrugged and looked off to his right.
"Humans are very selfish creatures, not because we want to be, but because we have to be. And honestly, we're not really being selfish…it's just that we can't see the world from any other person's eyes, because if we could do that…things would get pretty confusing, you know? We can't ever really understand how another person thinks or feels, though we try to. The only thing we can do is apply our own feelings and perceptions to their situations and derive some sort of idea on how they might be feeling. But does anyone really know? Would you ever really be able to understand why I did what I did all those years ago? No, you can't, even though you try, because those thoughts and feelings that motivated me were unique to me and me alone, and no matter how I try to explain them, no one can understand. It's not like you can crack open my head and read my thoughts, you know?"
Mustang thought he might be following the line of thought, but he wasn't really sure.
"What are you trying to get at, Fullmetal?" he finally asked, trying to get back to the main point. Edward shifted around so that he could lean over the table towards the man, left arm tucked against his chest, right arm extended out before him and moving in a cutting gesture, as if to chop off the excess and get to the core.
"The point that I'm trying to make is this, Colonel: You did what you had to do to stay alive. While I'm not going to say that what those blowhards in the higher scheme of things made you do was right, I'm not going to call you a murderer or a criminal either. And you know why?"
The man shook his head.
"Because your only real crime was being human. That's humanity's only crime: that we're all just a bunch of imperfect people struggling to make it in this imperfect world."
Mustang sat back to digest that a moment.
"You've done nothing other than what is natural, Colonel. No one can blame you for that. All that matters is that now…you know what you've done, and you can learn from that."
For a moment, Mustang said nothing, couldn't really as he fought through all the shock and amazement. He just stared at the boy, feeling as if he were seeing him for the first time. After a while, with no forthcoming response from the Colonel, Edward began to shift uncomfortably in his seat.
"But…Colonel…there's one more reason why I can't see you as a criminal."
Mustang's eyebrows rose inquiringly.
Edward sighed, and his eyes dropped to the left.
"It's because I don't really think you're a bad person. I mean…you gave me a push to get back on my feet and do something about the way I am. You gave me resources that could help me get the answers I needed. You believed in me and Al when no one else would. You never try to stand in our way, even though people say we're on a fool's errand and we're devils straight out of hell. Despite all of that…you've stood behind us all this time, encouraging us to do whatever we set our minds to, giving us a fighting chance."
Edward looked up and locked gazes with the Colonel.
"You're a good guy, Colonel, no matter what you may think or what anyone might say. What's done is done. You are not that person anymore. You are who you are now and that's all that should matter."
Once again, Mustang found himself unable to speak, so surprised was he at this gesture. Who was this young man who sat across from him, who seemed to be just a boy only five minutes prior? This one had surprised him from day one, and even now, he was still surprising him. Looking at this young man who grew faster everyday, Mustang suddenly grasped what he was saying and realized that he was right. What happened in the past happened in the past. He didn't need to look any further than the boy across the table from him to know that that was true. Edward of all people had pushed everything behind him and refused to be slowed down. There was a fire burning behind his eyes, one that was strong and steady and that was in no danger of ever blowing out. So, did Mustang not owe it to himself to push all that he had done behind him and move forward? He had too many things to accomplish before he could give up and quit.
Finally, after a long moment of staring at the boy and reading the fiercely determined fire in his bright, owlish eyes, the man stood up, gathered his books and moved over to the young man. He looked down at him, not saying a word for a long, long moment, and Edward suddenly felt uncomfortable again, wishing that the bastard would just stop staring at him so stupidly and just say something, anything, just as long as he stopped staring. Finally Mustang smirked.
"You're one hell of a kid, Fullmetal," he said. Edward didn't quite know how to respond to that, and was thrown even more off-balance when the man reached over and patted his head gratefully before moving away into the cover of the bookshelves, immediately vanishing into the forest of bound words. Edward sat where he was for a very long time, digesting what had just happened and what the implications of the whole scenario would be, when all of a sudden, a voice called to him through the bookshelves.
"Shouldn't you be getting home by now, half-pint?" came the voice of good, old, familiar Colonel Bastard. Edward's unstable temper flared, and he turned a dangerously amusing red color.
"WHO'RE YOU CALLIN' A HALF-PINT MIDGET SHRIMP, YOU BASTARD??"
"Quiet, Halfmetal! This is a library!"
"HALFMETAL?? OOOOOO, I'M GONNA POUND YOU FLAT!!"
Standing at the front desk, Alphonse Elric debated very seriously whether or not he really wanted to lay claim to the loud, irate blonde who was sure to be kicked out of the library any moment now.