((A/N: As stated in the summary, this takes place about a month and a half after the epilogue of Number Twenty-Eight. This is a one-shot that has been lurking in the back of my mind since I finished the other story. Be warned for angst and some gore.))
The phone rang and Alphonse lifted the receiver, placing it gently against the side of his helmet.
"Hello, Rockbell residence."
"Good afternoon, Alphonse."
"Oh! Good afternoon to you, too, Colonel. How are things in Central?"
"Cold," Mustang replied darkly, clearly not pleased, "The snows started early this year. I have a feeling it's going to be a bad winter."
Al made a soft, sympathetic sound, then said, "Hold on and I'll grab Brother for you. I think he's sleeping on the porch with Den..."
"Who is Den?"
"Oh, Den is... the, um... the dog."
It seemed like Ed was always on the porch with Den, his arm wrapped around his huge furry body as they napped. It felt like Ed was spending more time with the dog than he ever had before, but Al wasn't sure if that was a bad sign or not. Mustang's sudden silence made Al think that he probably felt the same way.
"I see..." the colonel continued after a moment, clearing his throat, "Let him rest, though. I actually called to speak with you."
"Yes." Mustang paused for a beat, as if composing what he wanted to say, then, "How is he really doing, Alphonse?"
"Well... he says he's fine. Tired and still healing from the surgery, but okay."
"I know that's what he says," Mustang muttered, sounding exasperated, "He probably feeds you the same speech that he feeds me. But do you think that's true? How is he acting? It's hard for me to tell over the phone."
Al sighed and thought for a moment. Edward was doing better. He really was. He was gaining weight and his color was returning. He still slept most of the day and was in constant pain from his automail surgery a few weeks ago, but his progress was still admirable...
"He's different," Al admitted finally, lowering his voice in case Ed wandered in and overheard him, "Quieter. He hardly talks to me at all anymore. He still has the nightmares, but he won't discuss them with me. Sometimes he gets upset for no reason and won't tell me what's wrong... he just keeps saying, 'I'm fine, or I'm okay.' It's not like him and I'm worried..."
"Alphonse, he's bound to be depressive for a while... I think that's normal. Well, as 'normal' as this situation can be, at least. Give him time, I'm sure he still has some issues to work out."
"I know that... I just want to help him work them out, but the only things I know about what happened to him are what you've told me. I don't even know half of what he'd been through!"
"...You mean he hasn't told you anything?"
"Hm. That is odd. I'd fully believed that once he got settled in Resembool, he'd latch on to you like he had with me..."
"No, he's still attached to you," Al said, unable to keep the bitterness from his voice. "He still has the nightmares frequently and wakes up calling for you... He keeps trying to talk me into taking him back to Central now, when he isn't even healed yet, just so that he can be with you. He really misses you."
Mustang lapsed into a stricken silence as if unsure of what to say to that.
Al sighed again. "Not that I blame you for that... or him, either, for that matter. You've done a lot for him and I'm eternally grateful... I'm just frustrated. He refuses to open up to me, it's like... it's like he's not even my brother anymore. I don't know what to do..."
Al's voice cracked and he had to stop, suddenly overcome by the grief that he'd been shoving back for so long, now. He just wanted things to go back to normal... he just wanted things the way they were...
"I'm sorry, Alphonse. I truly am," Mustang told him sincerely, "I'll talk to him about opening up to you more when he finally does come back to Central. We're going to have a lot of things to talk about... That's why I called you. We've gotten some new information about his imprisonment in the lab, and I want to be sure that he's stable enough to deal with what I have to tell him... I was going to tell him over the phone... but now I'm thinking I should just wait to see him face-to-face."
"Is it bad news...?"
"...No, not necessarily 'bad'. Just hard. I don't know how he'll take it."
"I guess we'll just have to wait and see."
"I guess," he agreed.
"...There is one thing, though," Al began again hesitantly, "He... growled at me yesterday."
"...Does he do that often?" Mustang asked, sounding unsettled.
"No. He's only done it twice that I've seen. He woke up from a nightmare and was just really out of it. He kind of... attacked me, snarling like a dog. I mean, he snapped out of it after a couple of seconds and seemed embarrassed about it... It just made me worry a little..."
"Ah," Mustang intoned, then thought for a moment, "Well, we've already established that he isn't quite himself yet. Maybe it was nothing..."
"Listen, just let me know how he's doing from time to time. I don't always believe him when he swears that he's okay, and now you've made me feel justified in my doubt."
"I will, sir.
"I appreciate it. Goodbye, Alphonse."
He hung up the phone, feeling a little better now that he had divulged his fears to someone. Mustang was probably right... Ed just needed time to recover. Maybe Al was just being impatient, wanting Ed to relay what was almost certainly the most traumatic experience of his life—not that he didn't have a wide array of other traumas ranking close behind...
Al looked over to see Ed limping back into the house sleepily, a fleece blanket draped over his shoulders to keep him warm against the falling chill out on the porch. He kept one hand on the wall for stability as he came forward, wincing groggily with each step.
"No one important. Why don't you go lie down on the couch? I'm sure it's warmer in here than outside."
Ed grunted, then moved to obey. Den trotted into the house after him and followed into the living room. Al turned his head and pretended that it didn't bother him.
Edward limped down the hallway of Central HQ, his hands shoved in his pockets and his head up, watching the way that different people reacted as he lurched past them. Some of them merely glanced at him, uninterested—vaguely recognizing him as a coworker, but completely ignorant of the trials of his more recent past. Some of them would look at him with a small frown, vaguely wondering why they hadn't seen him around in so long and quietly noticing how thin he'd become in his absence. He had gained quite a bit of his weight back since his arrival in Resembool about a month and a half ago, but regaining muscle was a slower process and he still looked small and bony, even to his own eyes.
A few of the other military personnel gave him more than just a passing glance, though. Some of them—mostly higher-ups—froze in their tracks when they saw him and then looked away awkwardly, eyes downcast with understanding. Not many people knew that Ed had too recently been a tortured prisoner in an underground lab; a twisted, half-beast chimera... but Ed could identify those who were privy to the knowledge just by looking at them. Their eyes held sadness when they met his, and pity.
Since walking into the building, he had passed twenty-five people. Six of them had known about what had happened—or at least had some inkling of the horrors he'd withstood for over four months. Ed was sure than no one knew as much about it as Mustang did, and the colonel wasn't exactly one to blab... but there still had to be several people within the walls of HQ who had helped with the investigations to track down those monstrous Anarchists or had been part of the search parties that Mustang had sent out to find Edward after Alphonse had reported him missing.
Whatever the case, this was Ed's first time back at headquarters since he'd been kidnapped over six months ago—damn, had it really been half a year? —and he couldn't say that he enjoyed the way that those privileged few in the circle of information were looking at him. He didn't want their pity. Or their sympathetic encouragements. He was fine.
He was fine.
Overall, though, he really was glad to be back in Central city. His journey to Resembool had been good for him—both because of his dire need for new automail and just for simple peace of mind...—but he'd missed Central. Moreover, he'd missed Mustang.
The colonel had kept contact with him the entire time that he'd been away, through letters and infrequent phone calls, but that just wasn't the same as seeing him. Ed's attachment to him was nowhere near as desperate as it had been when he'd first left, but there was still some amount of unreasonable clinginess that he was fighting to work through. The moment Ed and Al had arrived back in Central yesterday, Ed's first instinct was to run to Mustang's office so that he could see him... but he resisted. It was all about self-control. He had missed Mustang. God, he had missed him so much during his convalescence in Resembool... but he couldn't keep depending on the man. If he wanted to get better psychologically, he couldn't run to Mustang every time he got upset about something or felt a little lonely. He was okay now and he could take care of himself. He was okay. He was fine. Absolutely fine.
Still, he had to admit to himself as he finally came to a stop in front of Mustang's office, it was so good just to be in the same city as him again. Ed hadn't even seen him yet, and he already felt more secure just knowing that he was nearby.
Edward took a deep breath and started to push open the door.
"—don't think it matters at this point..." Mustang's voice was saying, drifting out into the hallway as Ed opened the door a crack.
"It does matter... He should know about this," Lieutenant Colonel Hughes' voice replied, sounding strained, "Wouldn't you want to know?"
"No. I wouldn't. And I don't think that Ed would want to know, either. Besides, I think he's still too unbalanced for us to dump something like this on him... and he's going to have enough to think about after I meet with him."
Hughes sighed and there was brief lull in the conversation. Edward hesitated for a moment, half-wanting to just listen at the door for a little longer to see what they were talking about, but then he shook his head and pushed the door open all the way.
Mustang looked up, then blinked, startled.
"Edward, I wasn't expecting you until next week," he said, sounding surprised but not displeased.
"Hey, Ed!" Hughes smiled warmly, "How are you doing?"
"I'm okay," Ed replied, stepping over to the desk that Hughes and Mustang were both leaning against casually. He tried not to limp as he walked across the room, knowing that Mustang would see it, but he was still healing from surgery and the new automail hurt. In spite of his best efforts, Mustang's brow furrowed as he came closer and seated himself on the black leather couch in the office.
"Is the automail still bothering you?" he asked, his voice free of concern but his eyes still quietly worried.
"A little," he admitted, "It probably will for a couple weeks yet. It's normal."
Mustang's frown deepened. "We could have delayed this meeting a little longer, Edward. You should have stayed in Resembool if you haven't finished healing yet—which, clearly, you haven't."
"I'm fine," he insisted, waving a hand dismissively.
True, Ed probably should have stayed in Resembool for another week or two... but some of the more recent letters from the colonel made him eager to get back here. He'd said that he had some news pertaining to his imprisonment in that dank alchemy lab and wanted to discuss it with him face-to-face whenever he was ready to come back to Central. Already restless and wanting to be back in the city, Ed's curiosity was the deciding factor that made him and Al hop on the train westward. Al had tried to talk him out of it, saying that he was still too weak, but Ed ignored him. He had to know what Mustang had found about those depraved Alchemists who had held him prisoner for so many months.
His hands itched to deal them one fraction of the pain that they had inflicted upon him. He wanted them to pay... for his sake, and for the sake of all the other people who had suffered in that hellhole.
"Hm," Mustang mused, not looking very convinced as he straightened himself and collected a small stack of files from his desk, "Then perhaps, given your assertion of wellness, we should get to business." He gave Hughes a meaningful glance and the Lieutenant Colonel gave a tiny bow.
"Then I suppose that I should get back to work as well," he said amiably, taking the hint. He smiled down at Ed again warmly as if seeking to comfort and strengthen him for his meeting—a meeting that everyone in the room knew was not going to be easy. Ed tried not to feel any anxiety as he watched Hughes bow himself out of the room, but he couldn't help but take a deep, steadying breath as the door closed.
He was okay.
There was silence in the room for a moment, then Mustang sighed and seated himself at his desk. The chair creaked as he lowered himself down onto the black leather and propped his elbows up on the desk, resting his chin upon one loose fist as he looked at his subordinate, his expression unreadable.
"You look better," he said, sounding pleased but still looking a little concerned.
"I'm getting there," Edward smirked, noting with grim humor that Mustang had said he looked "better", but not "good". Ed didn't look good and he knew that, but he had improved immensely and was still on the mend.
Mustang smiled wryly in reply as if reading Ed's mind. But then he straightened and cleared his throat, suddenly all business.
"As I told you in my letters, we got some more anonymous tips relating to the Alchemic Anarchists," he said stonily.
"...And?" Ed asked, "Did you find out anything?"
"Quite a lot, actually. We raided another lab a little over two weeks ago. We've caught three of the scientists. So far they aren't talking, but we have a truckload of files and the... the products of dozens of experiments. The rest of them won't be able to hide from us for much longer."
Edward swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry, "Good. That's good."
"Lieutenant Colonel Hughes' men have been working around the clock. We are very close to bringing the whole organization down," Mustang continued, watching him closely as he spoke. "As it is, we have recovered a great deal of the victims they were using for their current experiments. Many of them hadn't really been altered much yet, so they've been sent home to their families."
"Were there... any chimeras?"
Mustang's jaw tightened. "A few. Most of them didn't survive. They weren't as..." he stopped, searching for an accurate description, "...well-made as you were, I suppose. They couldn't handle the stress of being transported back to Central and died on the way here."
He stopped again, still regarding Ed in that critical, unnerving way. "We did find something else, though..." he said, sounding suddenly uncomfortable.
Ed sat up a little and waited for him to continue, but then Mustang abruptly shook his head.
"Nevermind. It doesn't matter," he cleared his throat, "This newest lab raid isn't why I wanted to speak with you face-to-face, anyway. I called you in on a much more personal matter."
He opened a file on his desk and pulled out a photograph and an envelope. He looked up at Ed again in that uncertain, appraising way and got to his feet, moving over to the couch Edward was occupying and depositing himself on the other end. Edward had the abrupt urge to scoot closer and curl up against him, suddenly desperate for the comfort of his warmth, but once again he resisted. Mustang seemed to see his brief internal struggle and shot him an unsettled, pitying look, and then moved a little closer without saying anything.
Ed felt a tiny wave of embarrassment wash over him at Mustang's silent willingness to indulge his irrational clinginess, but his discomfort was overrun by gratitude and he just simply nodded his thanks to his superior, glad that he seemed to understand. Mustang knew that Ed was still battling against his neediness for him with all of his willpower and wanted to respect his restraint while still attempting to give him some small comfort. He had made a compromise: he had moved a little closer, but had not gone so far as initiate physical contact. Ed appreciated the gesture more than he could possibly say.
Mustang smiled weakly in return before replacing his professional air. He paused for a beat, then handed Edward the photograph that he'd taken from the file on his desk. Ed took the photo curiously and looked at it. It was a portrait of a young woman, perhaps in her early twenties. Her smile was bright and cheerful, exposing her straight, white teeth in a brilliant and guileless way. Her hair was dark and her eyes were an unassuming, unremarkable shade of medium brown. She was reasonably good-looking, but in an ordinary way, her face one that could easily be forgotten... in spite of that, though, Ed thought that she looked familiar.
"Do you know who she is?" Mustang asked softly.
Ed studied the picture a moment longer before he answered, "No... but I think I've seen her before."
"...She's Number Twenty-Seven, Edward. We finally identified the body."
It took a moment for Ed to process what the colonel was saying, but when he did he nearly dropped the photo. It was her. She'd had those same eyes, even then... Even when she'd been a dog, just a stupid dog, a dog like Ed. Ed. Ed. Twenty-Seven, Twenty-Eight, caged together. Just animals, just animals. Dogs. Chimeras.
Ed shook himself, trying to clear his mind of the sudden flood of memories. He shouldn't think about that. He'd gotten very good at not thinking about it.
"She was pretty," was all that Ed could bring himself to say, unable to tear his eyes from her face.
"Her name was Mary Kaplan," Mustang began after a short, assessing pause, "Her parents live in Blackwell. They said she'd gone missing a little before you did. For reasons of military secrecy, we couldn't tell them everything that happened to her, other than to say that she'd died while being held prisoner by rebels. I did tell them that one of my own men was imprisoned with her—I didn't name names, but it soothed them a little to know that you were with her when she died. They wanted me to give this to you."
Mustang handed over the envelope he was holding and Ed took it cautiously, praying that the man didn't notice how his fingers were trembling.
"You don't have to read it now," the colonel added gently as Ed just stared down at the blank ivory envelope, feeling a little bowled-over.
"Um... yeah," he said calmly after a long pause, folding it up and shoving it in the pocket of his coat, "I'll, uh... I'll read it later."
"Are you okay, Ed?"
Mustang didn't look as if he believed him, but didn't press the matter. Ed was fine. He was just a little... startled. He was happy that her body was finally identified, though, and now her parents would have some peace... Okay, maybe he was a little upset—just a little—but it was nothing to bother Mustang with. He would deal with it later. He was fine.
"Is that what you were talking to Hughes about? What you thought I wouldn't want to know?"
Mustang stiffened, then grimaced, "I was wondering if you'd been listening at the door before you came in..." He sighed and rubbed his face with his gloved hand, "But to answer your question, no. I was going to tell you about this no matter what. The other thing is something we discovered in the latest raid..."
"Well? Are you going to tell me?"
The colonel chewed his lip, a subtle display of uncertainty that he would have never done in front of Edward before his stint as a chimera, before they'd really known one another. "I really don't think you'd want to know."
"What, do you think I can't handle it?" he snapped, abruptly angry, "You've already broken my heart this morning, Mustang, how much worse can you make it?"
Mustang drew in a sharp, pained breath and Ed looked down at his hands quickly, embarrassed.
"...I'm sorry, I don't know why I said that. I didn't mean it. I'm okay, really," he mumbled, suddenly jittery. "I'm just tired. My automail hurts a lot today. It's the weather. The cold makes it hurt more."
"Ed, it's okay to be upset..."
"I'm not upset. I'm fine."
Mustang chewed his lip again, concern shining through his dark gaze, and said nothing.
"Look," Ed sighed, "if it has something to do with the lab, I want to know what it's about. It's important to me. I have a right to know."
The colonel looked toward the door that Hughes had exited not too long ago, as if wishing he'd come back. Then he exhaled slowly and turned back to Ed and then, very softly, he said:
"We... we found one of your pups in the lab, Edward. Alive."
For a moment, Edward had no idea what he was talking about. Pups? What the hell...? But then an image slammed into him, of something small, wet, and squalling. Dark like its mother. Something very wrong. Wrong and loud and wrong. Screamed and cried, screamed and cried. Bite it, shake it until it's quiet. Writhing between his teeth, tasting like blood and the vague sweetness of the amniotic fluid. Make it quiet, kill it, KILL IT!
"I'm okay," he said automatically, straightening, clearing his mind and fighting back the rising bile. He was okay. He was fine. Don't think about it. "That was just... I thought I'd... I'd killed them all..."
The colonel worked his jaw, "That's what I thought, too. It does look like it was badly injured, though. The scientists must have gotten to it before it died and helped it recover. There must have been pages missing in you file from the lab, because nothing mentioned it surviving... but some new files we found in the raid have it documented as..." he cleared his throat, "yours and Twenty-Seven's offspring."
Ed absorbed that for a moment.
"What are... um... what are you going to do with it?"
"That hasn't been decided yet. It's currently in one of our own labs across town." Ed stiffened a little at that and Mustang continued quickly, "It's being well taken care of, I assure you. I've made sure that it will be as comfortable as possible until we figure out what to do with it."
"...Can I see it?"
Mustang eyed him warily, "No... No, I don't think that would be a good idea..."
"I should see it. It's mine."
"You don't have any obligation to it..."
"But I made it."
"Ed, you have to understand..."
"I want to see it, Mustang. If you don't take me, I'll just go by myself."
Mustang swallowed and looked back toward the door again, rubbing the back of his neck.
"...Fine," he said at length, "I'll get Hughes to drive us. He's the only other person who knows of your connection with the thing."
Ed nodded, his stomach twisting into knots as Mustang got to his feet and went over to the phone on his desk. Edward closed his eyes and took a deep breath, absently fingering the envelope in his pocket.
He was okay.
Edward sat with his elbow propped on the armrest of the car door, his chin in his hand as he stared out the window, watching the snow-covered city speed by. He liked winters in Central. It didn't ever snow in Resembool and he'd never even seen snow until he was nearly a teenager. Maybe it was childish of him to think so, but snow seemed magical to him somehow. It was so white and pure. Clean. So completely untainted that it made the whole world glow with a cold, utterly sinless light. He could stare at it for hours, letting his mind be cleansed by the whiteness. Clearing his thoughts, emptying his head of everything that he didn't want to think about.
Almost immediately after getting into the car, Ed wanted to turn around and go back. He didn't say anything about it, though. Mustang would have only been too happy to take him back inside the office building and forget the whole thing... but Ed needed to do this. He had to see it, at the very least. It was, after all, his child.
Oh, he didn't like using that word... "child". But that's what it was. He wasn't going to be able to raise it, or teach it right from wrong, or do anything with it that a proper parent should do... but he was its father and he should at least see it, just once. Mustang kept telling him that he wasn't obligated to it in any way, but he was.
True, he hadn't been in his right mind when this creature—along with its brothers and sisters, all victims of infanticide—had been conceived... But still, it had been his fault. The least he could do for it was make sure that Mustang's insistence that it was being cared for was true. He didn't think that the colonel would lie about such a thing, but he wanted to see for himself. He didn't want it treated the way that Ed himself had been, locked in a filthy cage and left to starve to death, with only the rotting corpse of his lover to keep him compa—
Don't think about it.
Both Mustang and Hughes were watching him, waiting for any sign that he wasn't ready for this, that his tortured mind was unable to cope with what was about to be presented to him... so he had to keep his face completely blank. He couldn't think about certain things that were too hard to think about. Because then Mustang would see and make him go back to the dorm. But he needed to do this. He needed to. It was the right thing to do and he was okay. He really was.
God, he wanted Mustang to hold him right now.
The car stopped in front of a closed gate with a guard standing in front of it. The guard's face was grim and resolute and he didn't look as if he had any inclinations to get out of the way and open the gate.
"Hm," the colonel mumbled, "Looks like I have some schmoozing to do. This is a highly classified lab; it may take some convincing for them to let you in, Ed. I'll be right back."
Mustang stepped out of the car and a rush of cold air blew inside in the wake of his departure. Ed shivered and watched him stalk over to the guard, head held high and flashing his most charming smile. His gunmetal greatcoat whipped around him in the rising wind. He looked powerful and strong.
"You sure you're okay, kid?" Hughes asked him softly, breaking the silence in the car.
Ed just nodded wordlessly, still watching Mustang.
"He's really worried about you, you know," the man continued, watching him through the rearview mirror.
"I know. He doesn't believe me that I'm fine."
Hughes made a small, thoughtful sound. Clearly, he didn't believe it, either, but he wasn't going to say anything about it. "Maybe you and Al should stay with him for a few days while you're here. I think it would do all of you some good."
Ed shrugged carelessly, not about to admit how appealing that sounded. He didn't need Mustang anymore. He didn't need him, because he was okay and he didn't need help anymore.
After a few moments Mustang returned to the car, looking smug. The gate in front of them opened and Hughes drove them through it. He parked the car beside a line of other military vehicles and they all got out, crossing their arms against the chill wind.
Mustang led the way to a set of double doors and pushed them open to reveal a long white hallway stretched out behind it. The featureless corridor echoed with the sound of distant screaming. A low, frightened moan escaped from Ed and, in spite of himself, he pressed himself against Mustang's side.
Mustang immediately put an arm around him, as if he'd just been waiting for Ed to initiate contact.
"We can still go back, Ed. You don't have to do this."
"No. I'm fine. It's fine," he rasped, making himself push away from his superior's warmth, "Let's just get this over with."
Mustang let him go with only barely-concealed reluctance and started down the hallway. Another long, low, sick scream reverberated around them and Ed shuddered, limping forward quickly so that he could walk next to the colonel.
"We have a lot of the survivors here," Hughes said quietly, in reference to the screaming, "Some of them aren't healing as well as others... You get used to it after a while."
Ed knew that all too well, though. He knew what it was like to have to get used to the sound of ceaseless screaming... he didn't want to do it again. It wasn't a sound that anyone should ever have to become acclimated to.
They walked slowly, the two men greeting white-coated scientists and fellow-alchemists familiarly as they walked by. Clearly, both of them had been here many times. Ed's heart was racing by the time they reached their destination, veering into the open doorway of a huge white room. Only then did Ed realize that he'd been holding Mustang's hand and he jerked away quickly, shoving his fist into his jacket pocket. His hand met the crinkly resistance of the envelope folded there and his stomach turned, immediately making him want to grab Mustang's hand again. He resisted, though. He swallowed back his fear and limped forward into the room, taking in his surroundings.
It was an airy, open room, echoing with the scratching, yowling sounds coming from the countless cages lining the walls. There were some worktables with a few scientists studiously looking over charts or hovering over microscopes. Some of them looked up as they entered, but then they went back to their business, recognizing Mustang and Hughes as colleagues.
Most of the cages in the room were empty. Those that were occupied looked well kempt, the bottoms of the cages lined with clean, soft rags for the various animals to sleep on comfortably. There were little dishes for water and food and the animals themselves, while they certainly didn't look happy, did not appear as if they were being abused in any way.
One small fraction of the tightness in Ed's chest dissipated, soothed by that thought. Good. That's good, at least.
Ed looked up at Mustang and the man gestured toward a cage in the middle of the room. This cage was different from the others: instead of metal bars, this structure was made of clear glass on all sides, probably for the purpose of observing the contained creature's every move. It was clearly a very important bit of evidence to these people, something to be studied, prodded for information.
Ed moved toward the cage slowly, his legs carrying him closer as if of their own volition. Mustang and Hughes hung back, perhaps thinking that he wanted some privacy. He didn't need privacy. He was numb and cold, his pounding heart making the blood roar in his ears. He was fine. He was okay. He was okay he was okay he was...
He pressed his hand against the door of the cage and crouched down, letting his gloved fingers slide down the cold, smooth glass, bringing himself down to eye-level with the thing that was in the cage--the dark thing that was sitting upright, staring at him, waiting. It wasn't very big—perhaps the size of a one-year-old baby—and it swayed a little where it sat, as if it hadn't quite mastered the art of sitting up by itself, in spite of having four legs. Its coat was fine and soft-looking, like the dark, downy hair on a newborn's head.
There was something wrong with its face. Its lower jaw didn't quite align with its top jaw and it jutted crookedly out to one side, allowing ropes of saliva to trickle down its front and mat the fur on its chest. Its limbs were bent and deformed—whether by injury or birth defect, Ed didn't know... whatever the case, it was clear that it would never be able to walk. Its belly was distended, unhealthily swollen by inefficient, malformed organs. Its eyes were huge and brown—though one of them was dull, covered with a sheen of milky-blue blindness, cocked awkwardly to one side—and it looked up at Ed blankly, entirely expressionless. Just watching him. Just silently watching.
Ed's hand moved over to the latch holding the door closed and he flipped it up, not even really realizing that he was doing it. Slowly, he pulled the door open. He hesitated for a moment, then ungloved his hand and reached forward, offering it for the creature to smell. The thing bent its head and sniffed his hand, its cold nose sending a chill down Ed's spine and making him want to throw up. The creature didn't notice his discomfort and instead seemed pleased to be getting attention. It turned its head and gently bit down on Ed's hand, playfully gnawing on him just as a puppy would.
Just as a baby would.
Ed stared at it, silently running his thumb along the soft fur above its nose. Such soft fur...
"I'm sorry, little one..."
Then he drew his hands back, clapped them together, and touched it.
The thing's tiny body ruptured and the glass walls of the cage became suddenly opaque, splattered with blood and chunks of still-living meat and warm organs. Blood sprayed out of the cage door and coated Ed's face and arms, but he noticed it only peripherally.
There was a flurry of commotion behind him, raised voices and chairs being knocked over as people stood up too fast. Ed heard Mustang's voice raised above them all, shouting back, defending him. Ed couldn't really understand what they were saying. He was too focused on watching the blood slide down the glass, on tasting it on his stained lips. He looked down at his hand, at the dripping crimson, and brought it up to his mouth.
Someone grabbed his wrist and pulled his hand away from his face. They hauled him up onto his feet and steered him out of the room quickly, talking to him in a low, soothing voice that sounded like it was trying hard not to sound scared.
And then they were outside. It had started snowing again. The white flakes danced downward, spiraling to the earth, so calm and cold. He could stand and watch it forever. A pair of strong hands pushed him into the back seat of the car. It was Mustang. He and Hughes were shouting at each other as Hughes started the engine, arguing about something.
"I told you he wouldn't be able to handle this!"
"Shut up, Roy! Let's just get him out of here!"
Mustang pulled a handkerchief from his breast pocket and started wiping the redness off of Ed's face, corrupting the whiteness of the cloth. His hands were shaking.
"I'm okay," Ed told him quietly. His voice sounded strange to him, as if it wasn't coming from him at all. It was coming from far away, from somewhere dark. "I'm fine. Everything is fine."
Mustang said something in return, but Ed couldn't hear him, so he turned his head and looked out the window, watching the snow. The colonel seemed to hesitate for a moment, then he took Ed's hands and started trying to wipe them off, too. Ed ignored him for a while, but when he started trying to get him to take off his warm, red coat he protested with a low whine.
"Come on, Ed... There's blood all over it..."
"Then I'll give you mine."
Ed half-heartedly resisted for another moment, but then gave up and fell still, letting the man do whatever he wanted. It didn't matter anyway. Mustang tugged the blood-soaked jacket off of him and something fell out of the pocket. It thumped down onto the seat next to him, the crisp paper crinkling and pale against the black leather of the seat, slowly unfolding itself like a flower. He stared at it, knowing that it was important, but for some reason not remembering exactly what it was.
Mustang shrugged out of his greatcoat and draped it over Ed's shoulders. It was huge, entirely too big for him, enveloping him in a dark, heavy shroud. The coat was warm and smelled like Colonel. He burrowed into it and inhaled deeply, still looking down at the envelope on the seat.
Mustang and Hughes were still talking to each other, their voices fast and clipped. Hughes sounded like he was crying, but Ed didn't look up to see. He reached for the envelope and opened it.
It was a letter. Plainly written in black ink with a neat, feminine hand. Ed's tired eyes glossed over it, not completely reading it, but getting a general idea.
The letter had been written by Twenty-Seven's—Mary's—mother. It was basically a letter of both condolence and gratitude, full of "I'm sorry" and "Thank you". This faceless lady's words drifted silently into Ed's mind, imprinting him with images as he read.
". . . was such a sweet girl . . . miss her so much . . . at least she wasn't alone . . . never know the joy of having grandchildren . . ."
"Hm. That's funny," Edward said quietly.
The men in the car fell silent at his words, then:
"...What is, Edward?" Mustang asked warily.
Ed looked up at him. His face was pale, his dark eyes uncertain, his hands still shaking a little. Or maybe he was just cold.
"It's just... her parents are talking about not having a grandchild. But they did have one..."
"And I just killed it."
"Don't do this to yourself...
Ed didn't reply to that. He wasn't doing anything to himself. He was just stating facts. He had killed it. Murdered it. Blown it up. Smeared its guts all over the cage, all over himself, had tasted its blood again. It had survived the first time he'd tried to kill it, so he had just finished the job. Was that so wrong? He had to do it. He had to make it stop looking at him so innocently, so quietly.
Its fur had been so soft...
"Ask him to pull over..." he whispered tightly, his gorge rising suddenly in the back of his throat.
Mustang quickly relayed the message and Hughes pulled over to the snow-covered shoulder of the road. Ed fumbled with the handle on the door and pushed it open, staggering out into the frigid afternoon. He lurched forward—almost falling as his automail leg gave him a painful, unsteadying twinge—but then caught himself on a frost-covered tree next to the road. He bent double and dry-heaved, his empty stomach spasming with revulsion.
He closed his eyes tightly and gulped in the frozen air, panting against the stability of the tree and trying clear his mind. Don't think about it. It's okay. Everything is fine, just fine. Just a little slip, that's all, but it's okay now. It's all okay. Just don't think about it...
Mustang appeared next to him. Not touching him. Not saying anything. Just standing there, waiting. Like the pup had been waiting. What the fuck had it been waiting for?
There was a long pause between them, the only sounds being the creaking of the tree as the wind shifted it and the pained, frantic noise of his own gasping.
Finally, Mustang spoke.
"You did the right thing, Edward."
"...You know, that's the second time you've said that to me..." Ed panted, his eyes still firmly on the snow at his feet. "I remember you said the same thing right after you first found out about the pups. You said that... that I'd done the right thing to kill them, because they were suffering. Because they were wrong. You said you would have done the same thing as I did."
"I would have."
"Then why didn't you?" Edward demanded quietly, his heart constricting into a solid, painful knot in his chest as he finally looked up at him. "Why didn't you kill me? You had every opportunity. You had the loaded needle in my neck. What stopped you?"
"That... wasn't the same..."
"How was it not the same?" he spat, voice raised, "Killing a child is killing a child, no matter how you look at it! Why was I able to do it when you couldn't? Am I that much of a monster or are you just a coward?"
"Why didn't you kill me?!"
"Ed, I... I didn't... please, don't..." Mustang rasped, his breath hitching as he reached down and placed a gentle hand on Ed's shoulder.
Ed's automail fist clenched spasmodically and he spun, punching the man hard in the chest. He'd meant to hit him in the face, but he was still getting used to the new automail and couldn't quite use it the way he normally would, so the blow went low, hitting him just below his collarbone. Mustang grunted in surprise, the breath knocked out of him as he staggered backward, but then he recovered himself and grabbed Ed again. He wrapped both arms around him as tightly as he could.
Ed growled and bared his teeth, but Mustang didn't let go, though his eyes did widen a little in alarm. The boy snarled again, enraged and terrified, then lurched forward and sank his teeth into the side of Mustang's face. The man cried out in surprise and let go. Ed turned and stumbled forward, trying to run, trying to get away. His automail leg protested again and he was suddenly facedown in the snow, still tasting Mustang's blood on his teeth. The colonel quickly pounced on him again and immobilized him, holding him from behind so that Ed's shoulder blades were pressed firmly against his chest, his arms pinioned.
Ed fought back hard, trying to escape from his hold, but he was tired and sick and scared and oh god, part of him just wanted to be held, wanted to be close to Colonel. He struggled and twisted in Mustang's grasp, shrieking like an animal, half-mad.
"I hate you!" he screamed.
"I HATE YOU!"
"You have every right..."
Mustang was crying. They were both crying, the tears streaming down their faces and turning cold as the freezing wind kissed them away. Mustang was kneeling down on the snowy ground with him, still holding him, his brow resting against the back of Edward's head.
"It didn't ask to be born..." Ed wept suddenly, unable to hold back anymore, "It didn't do anything wrong..."
"You didn't, either," Mustang sobbed, his chest heaving against Ed's back, "You didn't do anything wrong, Edward. It's not your fault."
"I couldn't just l-leave it..."
"I'm so sorry..."
Edward twisted around in Colonel's arms and pressed himself against his chest, the thin veil of composure that remained in him finally tearing wide open. He sobbed hard, loudly, face buried against his protector's blue uniform. Colonel just held him and cried with him—more quietly, but just as hard—one hand cupping the back of his head, the other wrapped around him tightly, shaking under the weight of submitting to his long-unspent grief.
"You said you were going to fix me! You s-said I'd be okay! You promised me!"
"You told me you w-were okay!" Mustang shouted back, his tears warping his words, "I didn't know it was this bad! Damn it, you have to tell us when you need help!"
Ed froze a little, then drew in several deep breaths, his jaw clenched as he tried to get a hold of himself. He wiped his face on Mustang's uniform and then tried to pull away from him a little, but Mustang still held him securely, not wanting to let go.
"No. I'm okay, Colonel... I'm okay, n-now..." Ed sniffed, "I'm just tired... The automail..."
"You're not okay, Edward!" he shouted again, still weeping, "You know you aren't, so stop lying to me! Stop lying to Alphonse!"
He stopped, overcome, and pressed his lips hard to the side of Edward's head, kissing him fiercely. "We're going to get you some help, okay?" he rasped, voice muffled by Ed's snow-flecked hair. "I swore to you that I'd fix you and I'm going to... but you have to talk to us and tell us when you can't handle something! You can't just pretend that everything is all right, because it's not!"
"I... I just..." Ed stumbled, warring hard against the tears that had flooded his eyes again, but there was nothing he could say in his own defense.
Another sob tore itself from his chest and he wrapped his arms around Colonel, digging his fingers hard into his back. The man responded by squeezing him still tighter—so tight that it hurt but, oh, Ed didn't care. He didn't want him to ever let go. He never wanted to leave his side again. Colonel was safe, he could fix everything, he could make everything better, couldn't he?
Neither of them could say how long they stayed like that, on their knees in the snow, holding each other and sobbing. After a while, though, someone leaned down and coaxed them gently to their feet.
"Come on, guys..." Hughes rasped, tears dampening his own face. "Let me take you home."
Mustang nodded and thanked him. Ed didn't say anything, could barely even breathe past the pain in his heart, and so just leaned on the colonel, steadying himself. Mustang helped him into the car and Hughes got into the driver's seat, calling the engine back to life. Ed huddled over on his side of the back seat, only now feeling the cold that had worked its way under his skin while he and Mustang were out in the snow. He shivered and sniffed, calmer now, sore and exhausted, just wanting to go to sleep. This had been too much... it had all been too much.
Edward looked over at Mustang. The man's eyes were red and too bright, not quite finished with their production of tears. He was still crying a little. He had blood on his face, vivid smudges trailing away from a clear set of human tooth-marks in his cheek. His arms were open, wordlessly inviting him back into them. Ed moved to comply immediately, but then stopped himself.
"You don't have to..." he rasped, embarrassed at his own irrational need, "I'm a little better, now, I think..."
"I know I don't have to. Just get over here," Mustang muttered, also looking a little embarrassed. "Besides, I'm not doing this just for you..." He stopped and wiped his eyes, then added with a watery smile, "I'm absolutely freezing, and you currently have possession of my coat. It looks like we have to share it."
Ed looked down at himself, having almost entirely forgotten about the long wool coat he was wearing. He sighed softly, allowing himself to smile, and slid across the seat so that he was pressed against his commander. He took off the coat and let Mustang drape it over both of them, trapping what little heat remained in their bodies and evenly dispersing the warmth for them to share. Mustang wrapped one arm around his wounded soldier and Ed curled up against him, drinking in as much of the loving contact as he could. He shook with need for it, though Mustang probably attributed his trembling to the cold.
"Is... is your cheek okay?" Ed asked guiltily, swallowing back self-revulsion and self-horror.
"Don't worry about it," Mustang rasped, burying his nose against the top of Ed's head, "I'm sure it's nothing."
It wasn't nothing, though. They all knew it wasn't nothing. Not the wound—that would probably heal just fine—but Ed. It wasn't normal to bite someone like that, especially someone whom you loved like a parent. Something wasn't right within him. Something he'd thought he could ignore.
No one said anything for the rest of the drive, though all three people in the car started weeping again at one point or another. Hughes kept looking back at them, his green eyes wrenching in their emotion, in their pity for both Ed and Mustang. Ed closed his own eyes against his anguished gaze, wanting nothing more than to fall asleep in Mustang's arms and escape—just for a little while.
He was going to have to face this. He knew that. And, in spite of what he'd been telling himself for weeks, he really wasn't anywhere near being okay. But Colonel was going to help. And Alphonse, too.
Maybe all of them together could make things right again, someday... but, for now, oblivion was more comforting than that desperate, far-off hope. And so, Ed burrowed closer to his savior, still tasting the tang of his blood on his lips, and fell asleep.
It would be okay.