Edward Elric stormed down the wide hallway of Central Headquarters with a newspaper crumpled in his clenched fist, staring daggers at any military personnel who happened to be in his way. He reached a set of double doors and pushed them open, his eyes scanning heatedly around the room as the startled occupants raised their heads from their work.
"Where is he?!" Ed demanded angrily when he saw that the Colonel's desk was empty. Hawkeye looked at him blankly and did not reply.
"Hello to you, too, Ed." said a voice from behind him. "I thought that I saw a red-coated tornado blow by."
Ed turned and looked up to see Major Hughes smirking down at him. He looked tired, Ed thought to himself, but then he shook his head and allowed his anger to drive him once more.
"Did you know about this?" Ed inquired loudly, brandishing the newspaper and shoving it in the Major's face. Hughes sighed tolerantly and took the paper from him, scanning the front page. He went still for a moment, then his shoulders sagged and he handed the paper back to Ed.
"Yeah. Of course I knew. I was there."
"But I thought that Al and I made Lior better!" Ed protested, looking back down at the article, which detailed the very recent battle fought in the city that Ed thought that he'd brought peace to. Apparently, soldiers had been brought into the city over two months ago in response to widespread riots and violent rebellion, but those soldiers had been quickly overwhelmed. There had then been a rescue mission to collect the devastated troops only two weeks ago, at which point more troops were brought in. "How the hell could the Colonel not tell me that I failed in Lior? I swear, when I see him I'm going put my fist in his face!"
Ed would have continued his wrathful tirade, but a sudden look of shock came over the Major's face and he fell silent. There was a long, breathless pause from Hughes and then the man covered his mouth with his hand, still looking down at Ed.
"My god, you don't know." He breathed, raising his gaze to look at Hawkeye on the other side of the room. "I thought you called him..."
"I thought you did." Hawkeye said back, her face just as unsettled as Hughes'.
"...Call me about what?" Ed asked tentatively, only now aware that something was wrong.
Hughes looked down at him sadly, looking as if the weight of the world was crushing down upon his broad shoulders. He moved his hand from his mouth and used it to grip Ed's arm bracingly.
"The Colonel led the mission in Lior."
Ed's mouth went dry. He hadn't read the entire article, but he had read enough to know how horrifically the troops had been decimated. Only nineteen of the sixty men had made it out alive, and a few more of those had died on the road or soon after their arrival in the hospital.
"...So, he's dead?" Ed managed to ask, his voice a tight rasp.
"No, he survived..." Hughes replied quickly, "He's been in the hospital since we brought him back to Central."
"Is he okay?"
The Major sighed and massaged his temple with one hand, still looking down at Ed with a gloomy sort of thoughtfulness.
"Maybe you should come with me to the hospital. I was about to go there anyway." Hughes said finally, his voice soft.
Ed's heart shuddered as the Major spoke those words, a dark sort of anxiety filling him and leaving him without a doubt that something terrible had happened. Ed could tell that Hughes was distraught, though the man was keeping himself collected admirably. The young alchemist was used to seeing the Major as a happy jokester or—less often—as an intense military man... but Ed had never seen him sad, and there was something deeply disturbing about seeing such sadness now.
"Come on." The tall man said as he turned and headed back down the hallway, gently steering Ed to walk beside him. Ed complied and let the Major lead him outside and into a car. Without another word, he got into the seat next to Hughes as the man started the engine. Ed watched him searchingly as they pulled away from Central Headquarters, wondering what horrible injuries the Colonel must had sustained to have so damaged his comrade.
The drive wasn't all that long, but it seemed to take a long time because of the questions and uneasiness that weighed with sharp silence upon Ed's chest. They pulled into the hospital parking lot and exited the car, walking side-by-side toward the big white building.
They walked through the huge, intimidating front doors of the hospital and Ed was immediately hit with the unnerving smell of chemical sterility and antiseptics. His stomach turned at the biting aroma as he was reminded forcefully of his own long stints under critical medical care when he'd lost his arm and leg. He swallowed back his nausea and straightened, looking up at Hughes as the man stepped over to the front desk.
"Good morning, Major Hughes!" the pleasantly chubby middle-aged nurse at the desk said brightly, pulling a clipboard from a drawer to her left and handing it to him. "I see you brought a friend."
"Hey, Carol." He smiled back familiarly, taking the clipboard from her and signing both his and Ed's names on the visitor list. He had clearly been here many times before and was very familiar with visiting procedure. "Yes, Edward here is tagging along with me today, if that's alright."
"Of course, of course! That's fine." Carol said, taking back the clipboard. "But before you leave today, I have some more paperwork for you to fill out. Just some legal stuff."
Hughes made a face at her and she laughed, giving him a friendly wave as he led Ed down the white-tiled corridor. Their steps echoed starkly in the near-empty hallway, the hollow sound accentuating the unevenness of Ed's half-prosthetic gait. The Major stopped in front of an open door and turned to Ed. For a moment it looked as if Hughes was going to say something, perhaps to give Ed a furtive heads-up as to how bad the Colonel's condition was so that he was prepared for what he was about to see... but then Hughes shook his head and just motioned for Ed to follow him inside.
For a moment, Ed did not follow him. He stood in the hallway outside the door with his heart uncomfortably tight in his chest as he braced himself uncertainly, looking in through the open door. He could only see the foot of the bed, for the rest of it was obscured by a thick privacy-curtain, blocking Ed's view of the bed's occupant. Hughes placed himself at the foot of the bed and smiled down at the patient.
"Hey, Roy." He said softly, clearly trying to keep his tone buoyant as if he were speaking to a child. "How are we doing today, huh?"
Ed heard no reply from the Colonel, but Hughes didn't look like he'd expected one.
"I brought Edward to see you." He continued, prompting Ed to gather the courage to step into the room. He moved slowly to stand next to Hughes and felt a brief wave of confused relief as he looked down at the Colonel.
The man didn't look nearly as bad off as Ed had imagined... there were no missing limbs, no disfiguring injuries on his face or chest, no tubes shoved down his throat or anything else that might have signaled the severity of the Colonel's condition. What wounds that Ed did see—huge bruises, stitched gashes, and varied burns that marred the Colonel's cheeks and arms—looked like they were healing, and though the man's hands were bandaged heavily and his leg was in a cast, Ed saw little else that was particularly worrisome.
It wasn't until he was able to look past the man's bodily wounds that he realized the true nature of Mustang's injury. The Colonel was thin, now; despairingly, shockingly thin. Mustang's build had always been lean, but powerfully so with broad shoulders and elegantly-muscled limbs. Now, though, he looked almost skeletal. He must have lost at least thirty pounds since that last time Ed had seen him, all of it weight that his toned body really couldn't afford to lose. Mustang's boyish face had become gaunt and angular, his cheeks hollowed and his blackened eyes sunken...
...But his eyes themselves—which Ed only just realized were open—were by far the worst part of the harrowing sight before him. Mustang was staring blankly straight ahead, though his face had been turned so that his dead, soulless eyes were looking out the window next to the bed rather than up at the ceiling. There was nothing behind those eyes. They were glazed and lifeless, reminding Ed of the dull, frightening emptiness that had come over his own mother's eyes moments before her poor heart stopped beating.
It was then that the horrifying extent of Mustang's damage flowed over Ed like a shower of ice and the boy realized that the Colonel really was dead, in spite of the fact that his body kept on living. He was as vacant and hollow as an angry child's broken toy.
A soft moan of horror and sadness escaped from Ed before he could stop himself. Hughes sighed next to him and put his hand on the boy's shoulder again, squeezing firmly.
"What... what happened to him?"
"As far as we can tell," Hughes began quietly, still looking down at his fallen comrade, "he was captured in Lior and tortured for information. He was in bad shape when we brought him in and though his body is starting to recover quickly, his mind... well, five straight weeks of interrogation takes its toll."
"Is he going to... to ever wake up?" Ed asked when he found his voice.
"He is awake, Ed."
"No, I mean... is he going to stay like this... is he going to be... a vegetable like this forever?"
Hughes winced a little at the word "vegetable", but then shrugged. "We don't know. He's been like this since we found him... and some soldiers who were with him said he was like this a few days before we even got to him." Hughes moved over to the side of the bed, standing between the patient and the window, closing the blinds a little so that the sunlight streaming in was no longer shining in the Colonel's unfocused eyes.
"Can he hear us?" Ed asked timidly after a long pause, moving a little closer.
"You know, I'm not really sure. I come in every day to talk to him, but he doesn't ever react to my words." Hughes smiled sadly again and reached down to brush Mustang's untidy bangs out of his motionless face. "You need a haircut, buddy." He continued fondly, running the backs of his fingers down the Colonel's scabbed cheek.
Suddenly, Mustang's body twitched and he unsuccessfully tried to curl himself into a protective ball.
"Hydrogen: nonmetal; atomic mass of one point zero zero seven nine four. Helium: noble gas; atomic mass of four point zero zero two six zero two..."
Ed jumped at the unexpected movement and words from the Colonel. He looked up at Hughes, alarmed but hopeful that this was a good sign, but Hughes did not look surprised or excited by the Colonel's soft ranting.
"He does this sometimes." Hughes explained dejectedly, quickly moving his hand away from Mustang. "Usually when he's in pain, but also if someone makes a loud noise outside or sometimes just when someone touches him. He never says anything else... he just lists elements over and over again."
Ed's shoulders sagged, his throat tightening as he returned his gaze to the Colonel, silently trying to come to terms with the fact that his commanding officer had not only been tortured horribly, but driven insane. Ed knew that Hughes was watching him, and that was perhaps the only thing that kept him from bursting into tears at the thought. Ed often declared how much he hated the Colonel, raging loudly about him to anyone who would listen, but Ed had always known that Mustang cared for both him and Al from the way he meddled in their affairs and did his best to protect them... and secretly, in that same harshly dysfunctional way, Ed had cared for him in return. And now, to see him like this... so broken and absent... it was a lot to absorb at once.
"...Lithium: alkali metal; atomic mass..."
"Well," Hughes began, talking over the Colonel's low, monotone voice, "I need to go take care of that paperwork before I forget. It'll only take a few minutes, if you want to stay here with him for a bit."
Ed nodded uncomfortably, not trusting himself to speak. Hughes made a small, sympathetic sound and patted Ed's shoulder companionably as he moved past him and headed for the door.
"I'll be just down the hall if you need me." He said to him, then turned and gave Mustang one last glance before departing.
Ed was alone now, apart from the alive-yet-lifeless body of Colonel Roy Mustang that filled the room with a soft, yet piercing string of words that he probably didn't even realize that he was uttering.
"Oh, Colonel..." Ed rasped, moving to stand at the head of the bed with the light from the window warming his back, "What did they do to you?"
"...Carbon: nonmetal; atomic mass of twelve point zero one zero seven eight..."
Ed crouched down so that he was eye-to-eye with the catatonic man and looked at him closely, trying to quell the deep feeling of grief that was contorting his insides. Was this Ed's fault? He'd caused a lot of damage in Lior, but he'd thought that he'd made the city better overall... The prophet Cornello had been unseated and now the city knew the truth behind his lies, so wasn't that better? Apparently not. If Ed hadn't gone there in the first place, would this uprising have even happened? Had he triggered this in his own one-minded search for the philosopher's stone? If it weren't for Ed, Mustang would probably be sitting at his desk right now, whining his way through his workday instead of lying in a hospital bed as he methodically listed elements.
"...Oxygen: nonmetal; atomic mass of fifteen point nine nine nine four three. Fluorine: halogen; atomic mass of eighteen point nine nine eight five zero three..."
Ed sighed, the faintest smile touching his lips. "The atomic mass of Fluorine is eighteen point nine nine eight FOUR zero three." he corrected him softly, "Not five."
At Ed's words, Mustang's rant trailed off into silence.
"Atomic mass of... eighteen point nine nine eight FOUR zero three...?" The Colonel repeated after a long pause, a definite inflection at the end turning his uniform rambling into a question.
Ed's heart stopped for a moment, startled. Had the Colonel heard him? Moreover, was he actually responding? The Colonel had fallen silent again, his brow slightly furrowed as if he was waiting for Ed to answer him.
"Y-yeah... it's four, I'm sure of it." Ed said finally, looking up briefly at the door with the vain hope that Hughes was coming back.
Mustang blinked and his dark eyes seemed to focus on Ed, locking his gaze with his subordinate as a look of dazed bemusement crossed his face. But then, slowly, his eyes widened in horror and his pupils contracted into sharp pinpoints of black.
His lips parted and spoke one word that was so packed with distress and raw terror that the emotional force of it knocked the air from Ed's lungs:
"Run." he breathed.
Maes sighed as he stalked back down the hallway, his hands in his pockets. He hated the legal paperwork that came with being his best friend's medical proxy, but it was entirely worth it... and luckily this round had only needed a few signatures. The documents mostly outlined Maes' ability to stick to what Roy had expressed in his will. Roy devoutly did not want to be on life-support and, while that last wish had not come into play yet, it might mean that some very difficult decisions were about to arise.
Roy technically was and was not on life support. His heart and lungs were working on their own, but he did need to be fed through a tube and some still considered that a form of life-support, even if only mildly. Soon, Maes would have to decide whether or not he thought Roy Mustang would have considered it life-support, and if so, he would have to let his friend starve to death if it meant fulfilling his wishes.
Well, he still had a few weeks to think on it... best not to let it rule his mind now.
Maes' head perked up and his heart stumbled unevenly as he heard Edward scream for him from Roy's room. He sprinted down the corridor, coming to a skidding halt in the doorway.
"Ed, what—" he started, but then froze.
"They'll kill you, Edward... you h-have to run!" Roy was saying desperately to the boy, trying to sit up. "They're looking for you, but I didn't tell them anything... I swear that I didn't tell them..."
"He just started freaking out on me!" Ed squeaked as he tried to push the Colonel back down onto the mattress. "Do something!"
Maes rushed forward and the Colonel finally noticed him. Roy sat up fully and turned to face him, placing himself between Maes and Ed as if trying to shield the boy.
"I w-wont let them hurt you..." Roy swore to Ed, pressing himself back against the boy as his glazed eyes stared up at Maes defiantly. Maes could clearly see that he was hallucinating and not entirely conscious.
"Roy, it's okay!" Maes tried to soothe, reaching his hand out slowly to his friend. Roy flinched away as if expecting to be struck, but resolutely kept trying to protect Ed from the dangers that lurked in his own ravaged mind. Maes moved forward and put his hand very gently on Roy's shoulder, hoping that the tender contact would help him to realize that he was safe. "You're in a hospital, in Central. It's okay, now."
For a moment it looked at if Maes' soft touch had succeeded in calming Roy, for his passionate rambling fell silent and one of the arms that he was using to keep Ed behind him lowered back down onto the bed. Ed looked up at Maes then returned his gaze to Roy, unsure of what to do.
"Maybe you should leave the room, Ed." Maes said softly, his gaze still locked with Roy's. Ed nodded, obviously shaken by what was happening, and moved slowly out from behind his Colonel. Roy turned to look at him, his breath coming in short, panicked gasps as he unfocusedly watched the boy go to stand near Maes.
"No... d-don't touch him." Roy pleaded, such pain in his voice that it shot through Maes like a shard of glass. "He's just a kid... he didn't know..."
Maes reached his hand back, furtively pushing Ed toward the door in hopes that he'd take the hint and leave, thinking that maybe without Ed in the room Roy would be able to get a grip on himself. Besides, Maes really didn't think that the once-proud Colonel would really want Ed to be seeing him like this in the first place. It would be better for everyone if the boy would just go.
Roy, however, did not like the brief contact that Maes made with Ed as he pushed him away. The delirious man made a harsh, beastial sound and threw himself at Maes, still trying to protect Ed from the evils that only he could see. Maes grabbed him and held him tightly against his chest, afraid that Roy would hurt himself in this fit of hysteria if he didn't immobilize him.
Roy was hyperventilating now, eyes wild as his stressed body and mind tried to cope with his terror and confusion. The heart-monitor next to the bed beeped a warning, telling Maes that Roy's heart was pounding dangerously fast. He needed to calm down, or his already-weak heart was going to give out completely.
"I wont hurt him, Roy... It's me! Maes!" The Major tried to convince him, his voice breaking. He seated himself on the edge of the bed and kept his tone carefully light as he held the Colonel. "You're safe here, you and Ed both are."
Roy screamed and thrashed weakly in Maes arms, already too exhausted to escape from his pinioning embrace.
"Just run, Fullmetal! Please! I-I can't..." Roy begged, staring over Maes' shoulder at the boy. Maes looked over at Ed, who was frozen with uneasy shock as he listened to his Colonel's ranting.
"Get out, Ed! Go get a nurse or something!" Maes shouted at him.
Edward jolted as if slapped, but snapped out of his alarmed daze and turned quickly to run out of the door, calling for help.
"Come on, Roy..." Maes said, turning back to the frightened, gasping man in his arms. "It's going to be okay, just calm down."
"Please, please no..." the Colonel said, the words coming from him like the panicked sounds of a beaten dog that fears another onslaught of violence from its master. "Just stop, please... don't touch me... I told you, I don't know anything..."
Maes' heart broke to hear those wrenched, shuddering words. He could just imagine what horrible things Roy was experiencing in his own head to make him rasp so imploringly. The Major pulled his broken best friend against him even more tightly, pressing his cheek to the side of Roy's head.
"Oh, Roy... I'm so sorry..." Maes rasped quietly, even as the man he was addressing writhed and screamed against him, not even aware of his friend's mournful words.
"Don't touch me! DON'T TOUCH ME...!"
Maes heard a noise at the door behind him and a pair of strong, feminine arms gripped Roy's shoulders, gently but firmly disengaging him from Maes' embrace and forcing him back onto the bed. The Major looked up as the nurse nudged him aside so that she could hold the hysterical man down firmly while another nurse quickly syringed a dose of clear fluid into his IV line.
"We'll take it from here." The woman with the syringe said to Maes, tilting her head covertly to signify that she wanted him to go out in the hallway. Maes stood, wiping his eyes on the cuff of his uniform as he watched the sedative work its way through Roy's system. Roy went still, a quavering moan escaping from him as his terrified eyes slid shut and his body relaxed against the mattress.
"Come on, Major." said a voice at his side. Maes looked down as Ed took him by the elbow and led him out of the room. The two of them stood in the doorway, trying to look past the privacy-curtain to see what was going on, but all they could make out were the vague silhouettes of the nurses as they worked.
Maes and Ed exchanged a disquieted glance and the Major ran a trembling hand through his dark hair, trying to still his erratic heartbeat and quell the painful tightness in his throat.
"What... what did you do to make him react like that?" Maes asked, still stunned by Roy's abrupt and violent outburst.
"Nothing!" Ed defended himself, clearly upset. "He just got the mass of Fluorine wrong, so... so I corrected him and he just... went nuts. I-I didn't mean to scare him, I'm so sorry..."
"Oh, don't be sorry, Ed..." Maes said softly, a sick smile curling the corners of his mouth. "This is the most activity I've seen from him since we brought him back, so maybe this is a good sign. He even recognized you... That has to be an improvement, don't you think?"
Ed shrugged and looked away from Maes, probably too overwhelmed to take any comfort in that thought.
"...I mean, that's a good sign, right?"
Gracia Hughes bit her lip and sighed into the phone, pained by the desperate hope in her husband's voice. Maes was calling her up from the hospital's payphone and had just told her of Roy's brief lapse into some hysterical form of consciousness.
"I can't say for sure that it's a good sign, but it's certainly a sign of some kind." She replied guardedly. "Did something trigger it, or did he just start ranting?"
"I'm pretty sure Ed triggered it somehow. Sweetheart, Roy even recognized him! He called him by name and everything!"
"Did he recognize you?"
Gracia winced inwardly at the quiet grief packed into that one word. There was silence for a moment, then Maes continued,
"Anyway, the nurses said that I could stay the night with him. I want to be here if... you know... if it happens again."
"That's fine, baby. Let me know if anything does happen. Just... just don't get your hopes up, Maes."
"...Yeah. Yeah, I know."
"I love you."
"I love you, too. Kiss Elysia goodnight for me. See you tomorrow."