It was dark and it was cold. The old, mildew-covered brick walls dripped with moisture and blackish, slimy puddles of god knows what covered the cracked floor like booby traps engineered specifically to make a soldier lose his footing in the dim corridors.
As if on queue, one of the enlisted men walking beside Colonel Roy Mustang slipped and nearly fell backwards into a puddle of the moldy, viscous gunk. The colonel grabbed him by the shoulder and steadied him, shooting him a formidable glare that plainly said, "be more careful or I will kill you myself." The soldier ducked his head sheepishly and mumbled some sort of apology, but Roy ignored him; he had more important things to focus on.
He was a little on edge at the moment. Okay, more than a "little" on edge... His heart was hammering in his chest and his mind was racing, agitated by the metallic, prickling feel of alchemy that was so thick in the dank air. Roy wasn't sure if his men could feel it—for none of them were alchemists—but each step that the company took toward its destination made Roy's skin crawl just a little bit more. Something had happened here. Something perverse and unforgivable. The scent of taboo was everywhere and the primal urge to just turn and flee from it was almost overpowering.
Roy suppressed a shudder and continued down the abandoned, badly-lit hallway with his head held high. There was no turning back now. Not when they were so close.
As of today, Edward Elric had been missing for four months, two weeks, and five days. It wasn't exactly unheard of for the kid to disappear for such long periods of time—since he did roam the country on a fairly regular basis and didn't always have access to telephones or mail services with which to check in at headquarters... or, at least, that was his excuse—so Roy wouldn't usually have led search parties into every corner of Amestris over something like this...
But the thing that really worried Mustang was that Alphonse didn't know where Ed was, either.
A little over four months ago, the youngest Elric brother had come in to Roy's office, wringing his metal hands and quietly asking if the colonel or any of his staff had heard from Ed at all over the past few days. Roy had warily told him that no, nobody had heard from him, and the armored child had very nearly dissolved into hysterics. He'd started crying and brokenly explained that he and Ed had had an argument about two weeks previous and that Ed had walked out in a huff and never came back.
"H-he's never been mad at me for this long before... and over something s-so s-stupid!" Al had wailed, leaning down to bury his face against Lieutenant Hawkeye's shoulder, "Something must have happened to him, or he would have at least called by now!"
The colonel had quietly agreed that Ed's absence was very strange, concealing the sharp jolt of worry that had run through him at the sight of Alphonse's despair. The Elric brothers were practically connected at the hip... Ed was a hot-tempered, disrespectful punk, but he would never, NEVER, skip town and not tell Al where he was going. Something was definitely wrong.
After Hawkeye had calmed Alphonse down enough to listen, Roy promised him that he would investigate the matter thoroughly and immediately gathered teams to try and figure out where Ed had gone. Every couple of weeks, the investigation would stumble upon a lead and the colonel would follow it doggedly, but it always ended in a letdown. It seemed that the Fullmetal Alchemist had vanished into thin air.
Discouraged after months of failure, Roy had temporarily called off the search last week as he collected what information he had found on Ed's supposed whereabouts and pored over it again and again, trying to discover something that he might have overlooked. Refusing to pause in the search for his brother, Alphonse was currently traveling south to follow yet another weak lead that would almost certainly turn up as nothing... but Roy supposed that he could understand the boy's need to cling to even the smallest glimmer of hope and follow it through to the end.
Colonel Mustang's perusal of old material had turned up nothing so far, but just when failure seemed like the only outcome, a lead dropped right into his lap. Roy had received an anonymous tip four days ago. Nothing flashy, just a simple letter that read "I know where the Fullmetal Alchemist is..." accompanied by a crudely drawn map that detailed this dilapidated, underground winery that Colonel Mustang and his men were currently stalking through. It was documented that this rotting, run-down place hadn't been used in over twenty years... but once the team stepped inside, it was very apparent that the documents on the property were mistaken.
It had become an alchemy lab of some sort, organized by an anarchist sect of alchemists who were infamous for illegal and unethical transmutations. They followed the mantra that "nothing is taboo if knowledge can be gained from it" and had been a thorn in the military's side for years. They popped up on the radar every now and then, but by the time the military got there the Alchemic Anarchists had already fled, leaving behind the gruesome remnants of their failed experiments.
And now, once again, by the time the military arrived all of the alchemists were gone and—from the looks of things—had been gone for weeks. Mustang gritted his teeth in frustration. There was probably an informant within the military, but no one could even begin to guess who. Well, it didn't matter at the moment. The purpose of this mission was to find Edward Elric... and—Mustang amended somberly as he stopped and looked down at a contorted body that was huddled in one of the makeshift cages lining the dreary hallway—any other potential survivors of this atrocity.
Second Lieutenant Breda was still upstairs with half of Mustang's team, searching for and collecting the victims of these alchemic experiments. So far, three—no, make that four, Roy thought as he gazed at the cage—bodies had been found in the lower level by Mustang and his crew and there were certainly more upstairs. One of the bodies had been in pieces, looking as if it has been dissolved by acid. Another body had appeared perfectly healthy... other than the fact that her organs were on the outside of her chest cavity.
Mustang crouched down next to the cage labeled #23 and looked at this newest body critically. Well, it wasn't Edward, which was certainly a relief. It appeared to be a young man, though... his smooth, unblemished face drawn back in pain and horror, freezing his countenance into a tortured mask as he died. His body was curled on its side, blood leaking from mouth, nose, and bowels. Poor kid. His arms were crossed over his chest protectively, his hands digging like claws into his shoulders...
Roy peered closer, his eyes narrowing at the kid's hands. They didn't just look like claws... they were claws.
"Chimera." Roy whispered, his stomach clenching. Now that he was looking closer, the colonel could see twisted animal traits all through the corpse; the kid's lifeless, glazed eyes had slitted pupils and Roy could make out a hint of fangs behind his bloodied, slack lips. The colonel swallowed back his horrified, nauseated anger and got to his feet, turning to one of his men. "Private DeMaine, make a note that this body is here, but don't touch it. The investigations team is going to have a field day with this case..."
"Sir." DeMaine saluted, jotting down some notes in the mission log as Roy swept past him down the hallway.
There were more cages at the end of the corridor. Roy took a breath and headed toward them a little anxiously. If Ed wasn't here, then it meant the disappointment of another failed lead... but if Ed was here... well, Roy didn't really want to think about that.
The first cage that Roy approached was bigger than the rest of them—more like a prison cell than a cage—with the number designations of #27 and #28 attached to the metal bars. The colonel looked into the darkness within the cage while some of his men examined the other cages stacked against the dead-end of the corridor. Roy could see the body of a dog or, more likely, a chimera sprawled limply in the shadows on the other side of the cell. It had clearly been dead for some time, but from the darkness and the distance Roy could not make out its features enough to tell whether or not it was the boy that he'd been searching for.
Roy reached into his pocket, retrieved his glove and slipped it on. He'd been afraid to wear them in the wet dankness of this building in case they got too damp to create a spark... but his pocket had kept them dry and ready, waiting for him to use them and call upon his flames. Roy snapped his fingers and the padlock on the cell door gave way, dripping molten steel onto the floor where it hissed and cooled in the wetness.
The cell door creaked shrilly as he opened it and stepped inside. He had to duck a little to get under the doorframe, but the cell beyond gave Roy more than enough room to stand upright as he made his way hesitantly to the dog-shaped carcass. He looked down at the thing expressionlessly, trying to hide the fact that his mind was silently begging, please don't let this be Ed, please don't let this be Ed, please don't let this be...
Roy swallowed hard and knelt down beside the corpse. It had a collar around its neck and the bright metal tag named it as #27; well, no help there... His dark eyes lowered and roamed the chimera's blood-matted fur, searching desperately for any identifying characteristics that might point to Ed... Then Roy saw and understood. He closed his eyes and bowed his head.
The thing was female. It wasn't Fullmetal.
Roy sighed and massaged his temple with one hand. Goddamn it. Another dead-end. He was getting so tired of this. True, there was still the far-off hope that Ed was still alive somewhere... but Roy sincerely doubted it at this point. He had probably been kidnapped off the streets and slaughtered like a pig months ago. His corpse had probably been torn apart and thrown out for vultures to feed on. This was a lost cause. A waste of time.
The colonel sighed again and made to get to his feet, but then paused. A low, rumbling sound caught his ear and he froze, looking back down at the chimera in front of him. Was it growling...? No. No, it was definitely dead. Then what...?
"Sir, over there!"
Roy's head jerked up in response to his soldier's warning cry and he looked around, fingers ready to snap a fireball into being. When his eyes landed on it, Roy sucked in a harsh, steadying gasp. It must have been hiding in the shadows... How stupid of Roy to just saunter into the cell and drop his guard, especially then there had been two numbers on the cage. If the dead chimera in front of him was number twenty-seven... then this must be number twenty-eight coming to say hello.
It was slinking toward him slowly, teeth bared as it issued a deep, threatening growl from the back of its throat. Its paws hit the floor in an uneven limp, the sharp click of its nails on stone resounding in the cell. Like number twenty-seven, it was also a dog... or, it had been at one point. Its fur was tawny in color, mottled with spots of blood and short enough to let Roy know that it was starving; its ribs and pelvis bones jutted out starkly from beneath its skin and its spine was a prominent, almost skeletal ridge. Its coat was accented by longer, golden strands of fur that bedecked its tail and hung lankly in its face, cloaking its eyes in dark shadow. The bright tag on its collar flashed menacingly as it stepped further into the light. Even looking as it did, though... as ragged and transformed as it—no, not "it." HE.—had become... Roy still recognized him almost instantly and his heart dropped into the pit of his stomach.
"Oh, damn it..." he breathed sadly, remaining in his motionless crouch as the chimera that had once been Edward Elric stalked closer, his lips pulled back in a snarl.
"Careful, Sir..." DeMaine cautioned warily, drawing his gun and leveling it at the beast.
"Don't shoot," The colonel ordered softly, never taking his eyes from the transmuted boy, "It's Fullmetal."
One of the men cursed in surprise and the others whispered to one another, aghast. Roy ignored them, all of his attention focused on Edward. He had stopped moving forward and was staring at Roy appraisingly, hackles raised and fangs visible, clearly sending a warning message to the colonel: STAY. BACK.
"Fullmetal?" Roy asked him, forcibly keeping his voice low and non-threatening, "Can you understand me?"
The chimera gave no reaction. He just stood there, watching Roy with such inhuman intensity that it made the hair on the back of his neck stand up. Then, as if Roy had said nothing at all, he started forward again, pale ropes of drool dripping from his wicked teeth.
Roy cursed inwardly. Crouched on the floor as he was, he was in a vulnerable position and the growling, angry chimera was getting way too close for comfort. He was less than ten feet away now and moving closer every second. Slowly, so as not to startle Ed or seem aggressive in any way, Roy ventured to straighten up from his crouch.
"Easy... easy, kid..." the colonel soothed, getting his feet under him and cautiously unfolding to stand erect, "I'm not going to hurt you..."
Ed did not look convinced. Unsettled by Roy getting to his feet, the chimera loosed a harsh, booming bark and lurched forward several more paces, jaws snapping and saliva flying. Roy backed away from him a little, nearly tripping over the carcass of the other chimera. This was not good; Ed was between Roy and the door to the cell and he wasn't showing any signs of backing off.
Roy glanced over at the door briefly. All of his nine men had their guns drawn beyond the bars of the cell and two of them were actually stepping in through the doorway as silently as they could manage, attempting to aid their colonel. As of yet, Ed seemed unaware of their stealthy approach; he was too intent on Roy, his body tensed and every muscle ready to leap on his commander and tear him apart.
"Go back, men..." Roy whispered to them, taking another step backward from Ed's advance, "The last thing we want to do is spook him. Jacobi, run upstairs and tell Lieutenant Breda that we've found Fullmetal. Richards, take a few men and go see if you can find tranquilizers or something up in the lab... lets hope those bastards left behind something that we can use..."
The men hesitated for a moment, watching the colonel uncertainly, but then they started backing toward the door again obediently. Roy watched one of them duck through the doorframe, but as the other approached his feet slipped out from under him in a pool of slime and he went down with a strangled yelp.
Startled by the noise and already fixated on his target, Ed lunged for Roy's throat in a burst of speed that gave the colonel no time to jump out of the way. He brought his arm up instinctively as Ed plowed into him, crying out as he felt teeth imbed themselves into the flesh for his forearm. The force of Ed's attack knocked Roy backward off his feet and both of them hit the ground hard. The fall knocked the breath from Roy's lungs and jarred Ed's jaws off of his arm.
"Colonel!" one of the remaining men shouted as Roy rolled away and staggered to his feet again, pressing himself back against the far wall of the cell.
"Don't shoot!" Roy roared again, hearing someone cock a gun, "He doesn't know what he's doing! Just let me take care of this."
Roy clenched his jaw hard and tried to think about what to do next. His arm was lanced with bolts of fiery pain and he could feel blood dripping from his fingertips, but he did not have time to examine the wound at the moment and instead kept his gaze firmly on Fullmetal. The chimera was circling again, looking for an opportunity to strike. Roy watched him grimly, wondering how either of them was going to get out of this standoff without further injury.
Maybe Roy could race to the door and close it before Ed could escape and just keep him in here until they found tranquilizers or something else to calm him down. Or maybe they could incapacitate him... shoot him in the leg perhaps... wounding him just enough to overpower and capture him. Or maybe...
Before Roy could finish his next thought, Ed attacked again. This time, Roy was able to dodge him and leapt aside. The colonel spun and grabbed the side of Edward's head, snatching a fistful of the long golden fur above his brow and forcing his face to the ground. Ed snarled and struggled, but Roy climbed on top of him and immobilized him, pinning him to the cold ground with all of his strength.
Ed writhed and tossed his head, howling as he tried to bite Roy again.
"HEY!" Roy bellowed down at him, "Knock it off, Ed!"
Roy hadn't really expected any reaction from him. It was clear that the kid was more dog than human now and he didn't understand what Roy was saying, but the colonel was in pain, sick at heart, and losing patience rapidly. He just wanted to shout at the kid... he wanted to scream at him, to demand why—WHY—he had allowed this terrible thing to happen to him. Stupid kid. Goddamn stupid fucking kid!
In spite of Roy's expectations, though—or the lack thereof—the chimera stopped struggling at the colonel's sharp words. He fell completely still, panting hard as his amber colored eye rolled over and looked at Roy, widening slightly.
"...Ed?" the chimera asked, his voice deep and warped.
Roy froze, his breath catching in his chest. He opened his mouth to say something, but then closed it again.
"Ed?" Fullmetal asked again, a sudden kind of desperation straining the word. Roy looked down at him uncertainly. It seemed as if Edward were waiting for Roy to say something, but the man had no idea what he wanted him to say and so he stayed silent. Hesitantly, Roy loosened his hold on Edward's head. When the chimera made no move to attack him again, Roy moved off of him and got to his feet slowly.
The chimera got to his own feet unsteadily, looking dazed. He hunched his shoulders and tucked his tail between his legs, whining softly as he looked up at Roy.
"ED?" he repeated, louder, his voice breaking. "Name Ed? Ed? Twenty-eight? Ed...?"
Roy's heart constricted as he finally understood what the kid wanted. He wanted confirmation of his own name. The dog-tag hanging from his collar shone in the dim light of this cruel dungeon, #28 engraved into the metal... and no doubt into Ed's mind as well. Roy swallowed hard and wondered how many months it had been since someone had called the poor creature before him by his actual name.
"Yes..." Roy told him, speaking past the sudden lump in his throat, "yes, your name is Ed."
The chimera exhaled sharply and then nodded, a shockingly human gesture to be coming from something that looked so much like an animal. Slowly, he turned away from Roy and plodded to the opposite side of the cell, his head held low as he whispered his name to himself again and again, "Ed... Ed... Ed... Ed..."
The men outside the cell were whispering to one another, shifting uncomfortably like a herd of uneasy deer as they waited for the colonel to give some sort of order. Roy held up a hand to tell them to just stay where they were and cautiously crouched down again, waiting to see what Ed was going to do.
Ed stopped when he reached the bars on the far side of the cell and turned to face Roy again. "Ed... Ed..." he rasped hollowly, his head swaying from side to side and his voice rising in pitch as he spoke, "Ed...! Ed! Ed! ED! ED! ED!"
And then he bolted.
He galloped toward Roy at full speed, screaming his own name at the top of his lungs like a war cry. Roy braced himself for an attack, but Ed ran past the colonel and crashed hard into the cell bars behind him. Ed collapsed to the floor and Roy rushed over to him, but the kid dragged himself to his feet again and backed up a few paces. Ed shrieked and threw himself against the bars again, slamming his head into the hard metal over and over. Blood appeared on his fur, splattering his brow and muzzle with bright drops of red as he bashed his skull repeatedly against the bars.
He was trying to kill himself, Roy realized in horror.
"Ed, stop!" he cried, grabbing him by the collar and pulling him back. Ed strained against him with a choked scream and the collar snapped, allowing him to barrel forward into the bars once more.
The colonel lunged for him again, wrapping both arms around his doglike neck and shoulders and dragging him back. Ed howled and tried to fight him off, but he was wounded and exhausted and on the verge of starvation and he could not escape from Roy's hold on him.
"Stop, stop, stop!" Roy ordered him, tightening his grip, "Come on, Edward! It's okay. Shh... you're okay... just let me take you home, alright?"
Ed shuddered at Roy's words and stopped straining against him, listening as he panted and whimpered.
"I'm going to take you home," the colonel promised him quietly, "but I need you to calm down, okay? ...Do you understand?"
Blood was dripping from Edward's mouth and there was a bad cut on his forehead partially hidden by his blonde bangs, sending tiny rivers of crimson down the sides of his elongated face. He half-turned his head and looked at Roy, their faces inches apart. The chimera's eyes were huge and terrified, drilling into Roy with a confused, frantic kind of pain... but they were not Ed's eyes. They were the eyes of a frightened dog, hazed with animal stupidity.
"Do you understand?" Roy asked again, desperately hoping that Ed's witty, exceptional mind hadn't been completely overtaken by the beast he'd been combined with. No. No, he was still there on some level... he knew his name and it was clear by his hysteria that he comprehended at least a little bit of the evil that had been done to him... but what about beyond that? Did he understand?
But then, slowly, Ed nodded. Roy clenched his jaw hard against the tightness in his throat and loosened his hold on Ed, a brutal, limb-weakening kind of relief taking hold of him.
"Good." Roy praised him gently, "That's very good."
"...Good?" Ed echoed, the word leaving him as a soft, whimpering sob.
Roy swallowed hard again and it was several beats before he trusted himself to speak, but then he rasped, "Yes, that's right... Come on." and got to his feet, beckoning for Ed to follow him. Ed hesitated for a moment, trembling and whimpering quietly as he sat on the floor of his cell. "Come on, Ed..." Roy coaxed again, stepping outside of the cell. The chimera gave a sharp, howling whine and hauled himself to his feet, limping after his commander with his head bowed, mumbling to himself,
"Ed... Ed... Ed... Ed... Ed..."