Envy lounged in the cover of dense, dusty greenery, casually watching the soldiers combing the area for what must have been the tenth time. They were like ants; brainless, diligent ants, swarming and lining up and swarming again at the bark of each new set of orders. He'd left very little behind in the way of evidence; but he couldn't resist leaving them a couple of little teasers. Otherwise, this mildly entertaining gathering wouldn't be assembled here, so convenient to watch and enjoy.
Rage truly relished the leftovers. And the experience was better than he'd expected. He didn't realize just how exciting and gratifying it would be with a stand-in instead of the real deal. It was too brief, though. It didn't even go a full 24 hours. No one had stamina and determination half the equal of Edward.
He was already eyeing the younger men as they moved through their tasks, reaching, bending, climbing. Most were too tall, too square, too beefy. But there were a couple of smaller, lighter, lithe athletic types that had his juices flowing in anticipation. It was too soon, of course, but once things died down a little, the fishing for more ersatz Edwards looked pretty damned good.
He'd been lost in thought, staring with greedy anticipation at one man in particular who was stripped to the waist, dripping in sweat as he rolled and turned over every rock in a huge pile of stones that were at minimum the size of watermelons. The harsh sound of a dog barking, then two, ripped Envy out of spectator mode.
What is this? he wondered, then nodded in wise understanding. Aha. Smart. They want to see if they can find and track the scent of that military brat. Well, good luck with that.
He'd gone up into the trees and traveled across the forest canopy on the way out with Rage's dinner delivery. The soldier's scent, if they could isolate the point of exodus, would end here.
The dogs buried their nose in a pillowcase before starting to search. Envy shrugged, reluctantly giving them credit for having a plan. Not that it would do them any good. He'd have to remember to rub their incompetence in the Flame Alchemist's face on The Day. That pompous-looking ass thought he was in command. But it was Envy who held the reins that counted, and only his reluctant self-restraint that allowed any of Mustang's men to continue to litter the world with their useless existence.
The mutts were unruly to begin with, and they'd barely begun sniffing when their hackles rose and they bolted to the end of their leashes, snarling and putting up an incredibly annoying ruckus.
What? Damn it!
The dogs were at the base of the tree, leaping and snapping, snarling with saliva flying.
Idiot animals! Wrong scent, you morons! Envy gathered up his wings and made the split-second decision to depart. Hiding might work, but if it didn't, he'd look even more suspicious. No bird would just sit here through all that commotion.
So he let himself be flushed out and flew up and away.
"There, look! Get it!" came the shouts from below. Someone finally managed to get off a couple of rounds, but it was too little and far too late.
So what if they suspected that he was there. Like that made any difference. They couldn't hurt him. They couldn't identify him. They didn't know enough to be a threat.
Maybe they'd be dumb enough to fan out and deliver his next playmate right to his doorstep. It would be a lot more convenient than having to hunt in their home base. Did they even realize what a risk they were taking by provoking him this way?
He was still laughing when he shifted back to his humanoid form and made his way down the alley to the rusting door that hid his comrade's lair.
He did appreciate the thought, at least at first , when the Major surprised him with the small stack of folded "day clothes." But he felt a little hesitant when he saw they were neither standard issue nor his old style of clothes. While he never really liked them, he sort of expected that his next wardrobe would be a regular uniform, something he'd have to live with for a while. These looked more like black jeans and t-shirts, just casual civilian get-up.
Ed finished pulling on the dark pants with a tug and zipped them up. They weren't a second skin the way the leather had been, he always preferred them tight. But these fit well enough for now, and he felt more properly dressed than he did in the thin knit pants and shorts they'd been providing for him to wear day and night ever since he became ambulatory in the hospital.
His fist fit easily between his belly and the waistband. Even though they were two sizes smaller than he wore before, there was room to fill out into them; while that was unwelcome news, he deflected his dismay by reminding himself it was only temporary. After all, he was working hard to get back into shape, so it shouldn't be long before he measured up. And he was eating a lot, although they said he wasn't. Strange, how they couldn't seem to pay attention enough to notice just how much he was improving.
He settled for leaving his t-shirt on the outside instead of tucking it in and turned to the large mirror on the wall to decide if that was best.
He'd seen his image reflected out of the corner of his eye, but he couldn't recall really, truly looking at himself in this wall mirror before to assess how presentably he was dressed. Although it wasn't floor length, from across the room he could still see his whole body, and it looked odd. He was startled, at first by the depth of the disappointment his image evoked, and then by the recall of how he used to feel about mirrors.
He'd never given it a lot of conscious thought before, but he realized now that he had been one of those people who couldn't resist checking out their reflection. Since losing his limbs, mirrors had always given him reassurance that he was presenting himself in a formidable and coolly stylish package. Other than hating the fact that he wasn't as tall as he should be, every other aspect of his outward image seemed more than satisfactory. He kept his physique taut and well-defined, his fitness and coordination were honed to perfection – but he was always open to building a little extra muscle just because it looked better, and look better he did, sporting not one ounce of flab. The skin-tight leather pants were pretty revealing, and he was well aware that they revealed no flaws. The red cape was dramatic, he was proud of the lush blond mane nature had blessed him with, and Winry had installed some of the sharpest, bad-ass looking automail he'd seen anywhere.
People hit on him fairly often when he slowed down long enough to give them the chance; but he tried not to let that happen, because he just had to turn them down. He had no doubts about his attractiveness as a visual piece. But the thought of getting to know someone who was attracted to him was less than appealing; let them think he was cool, and keep it at that. He had all of the relationship issues that he could handle constantly stewing inside, too busy keeping his ugly secrets and shameful failures hidden away. Life as a single, separate individual was not an option he allowed himself to consider until Alphonse could be restored. It was somewhat ironic that Al's restoration placed him on this new irrevocable path, one that erased any chance at the 'normal' life he used to assume was merely being postponed.
It was the automail that gave him his first fledgling sense of confidence about his body. In the difficult and painful throes of adaptation, the intricate metal objects redefined him. When he took his first, hesitant look in the mirror to examine the prosthesis, he saw in a whole new and unexpectedly satisfying image. The automail was radical, stylish and cool. He'd lost first place in the "cute" department long ago when his brother was born, so he'd come to disregard how he looked. But this hardcore mechanical makeover, this gave him something to build on.
It had been nice to experience that high level of confidence in his appearance over the course of the past few years – but the blow of seeing himself now was so much more disheartening because of it.
The pants sagged and he went to adjust them, only to deflate further at the sight of the new automail. It was thin, flimsy, made to blend and imitate the look of a natural, slender, arguably feminine arm. Instead of a tough, rugged, imposing piece, it looked like an apologetic cover-up for a deformity. It mated oddly to the old shoulder socket when he peeled up his sleeve and stepped up closer to look.
But being up close brought his scarred and discolored forehead into uncomfortable clarity. Embarrassed, he took his fingers and pawed down his bangs to conceal it as best he could; there was nothing he could do to soften the damage to the rest of his face. At that point he realized that his neck was puckered down one side from a thick ridge of scar tissue, giving the area a look not unlike that of extreme old age. He covered it with his hand, distressed at the comparison his thoughts produced. The more he looked, the more he saw, and there was simply no end to it. The next five minutes felt like five hours and he could stand no more. In an effort to see if the mess could be salvaged at all, he turned and snatched up the Major's old blue coat, shrugging it on and pulling it closed across his chest. Even though he didn't hold out much hope that it would help, he spun back to the mirror for the verdict.
The high collar hid his neck. In fact, it was so oversized it covered his chin clear up to his mouth. That kind of worked, he tried to convince himself. It covered the automail. It covered his skinny, asymmetrical, embarrassing body clear down to his thighs.
He looked like a toddler playing dress-up in the giant garment, yet enough of his face still showed that anyone could see he was disfigured. And now in addition to the flaws, his expression looked pathetic, too. It felt like he was sliding into his own cesspool of dismay and self-pity, and for the moment, he couldn't find a foothold to stop it.
It was impossible for Al to decide whether to say anything. It was apparent what was going on. From the moment Ed began studying himself in the mirror, his discomfort with his image and the efforts he made to lessen that discomfort were obvious. It was such a personal moment; saying anything about it would call attention to his lack of privacy, and probably add to his embarrassment. But on the other hand, it was difficult to just sit there and pretend not to watch him struggle on his own. If Al could have thought of the perfect thing to say to make it better, he would have. Anything short of that just seemed even worse than pretending not to notice.
Armstrong and Havoc were in the exact same boat. But the Major made a decision when Ed stopped trying to make adjustments and simply stared with an incredibly sad, pained expression. It was all right to follow Gansworth's edict and let him contemplate a bit; but it was not wise to let him get so deeply and darkly introverted that he forgot his support team for any length of time.
With casual aplomb, he feigned tripping, and sent one of the chairs clattering on its side, going the extra mile and actually tumbling all the way to the ground with a loud grunt.
"Whoa, Alex!" Havoc shouted to play along, catching on right away. The Major would never legitimately take such a clumsy, slow-motion fall. He caught Al's worried gaze and winked.
Ed staggered back a step from the mirror, startled by the commotion; it took a couple of seconds for his mind to shift from full inward focus to the point where he was able to take in the situation.
"Major!" Ed dashed over, not noticing how unusual it was that he was the only one to respond.
"Give me a hand, son," Armstrong said. He let Ed paw at him, leading him to believe that he was assisting as the giant found his feet and rose, giving Ed a companionable hug of appreciation once he was up.
"Are you all right? What happened?"
"Thank you. I just lost my footing. I'm fine."
"Good, but you should be more careful," he said in relief. He couldn't resist doing his own visual inspection before accepting that the Major was indeed just fine. The distraction didn't last long; his previous train of thought came roaring right back, with all of its heavy emotional payload intact. Ed's face flushed bright red as he frowned down at the oversized coat and began to shuck it off. Armstrong stepped in to help him and smiled.
"We should get you one in your size. I'll see to it."
Ed's head twitched as he absorbed that offer, still struggling with the implications. A uniform of his own was what he expected and what he wanted but it still wasn't easy to accept somehow. He had always turned his nose up at the blue uniform coats and worn his red cloak, or the fitted black waistcoat he'd spent beaucoup bucks to have special-made by the uniform tailor. He was so trim and fit, and those big blocky coats diminished him.
Conceding to the same coat as everyone else was like conceding his individuality. But did something like that even matter anymore? The red cloak, or more accurately, the remnant of it, was beyond repair. He needed to be fully restored to active duty and there would be no doubt of his status once he was turned out in standard blues. Maybe it was a sign. Things in the past were sometimes lost, or rendered useless over time. He couldn't begin to count the number of things he used to believe in wholeheartedly that he now understood actually belonged in those categories, too. Like his mother, and his false pride, and his dream of living a proper life one day. Resistance to the uniform was just another stubborn conviction that used to define him. More to let go of. Even this much was difficult, no matter that his chosen path meant giving up everything in the end.
So he had to stay focused. The important thing was that the uniform meant he was back on duty, and that was the only important thing. It was necessary to put all vanity and pride to rest and embrace this new direction. But it still was not at all easy to change things so basic to his nature.
The Major watched his troubled expression and did the only thing he could think of to help.
"But of course, this one is still yours to keep," he said, handing it back with a nod.
Ed clutched the huge coat to his chest and buried his face in it. All of this was irrelevant given his plan. He had to suck it up and stop thinking about trivial self-interest. Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse. Well, two out of three would have to do. He already looked like shit, and his corpse was likely to be in much, much worse condition by the time it all was over anyway.
"You should get rid of that mirror. It's annoying," came Ed's muffled voice.
"We'll see. Time for your upper body workout, don't you think?" Armstrong asked, changing the subject. "You wanted Al to join in?" Havoc offered.
Ed pointed to Al sternly, back in the action. "Yes. You're doing this too, Al."
"Me, four, I guess," Havoc shrugged, joining them.
The room was soon booming with voices counting off their calisthenics.
"I don't know how I let you talk me out of going."
"Because I'm right." Hawkeye slipped her hair under the scarf and tucked back the stray strands. A pair of oversized glasses made the transformation complete. In matronly civilian clothes, with an innocuous large purse slung over her shoulder, she could be any woman heading to the market. "One, you weren't part of the plan to begin with. Two, we need you here to cover our absence. And three, you're too easy to recognize. I can tell it's you from behind without even seeing your face. It would jeopardize the whole mission."
"If you're five minutes late reporting in…"
"If we're five minutes late, wait thirty more at least. Give us enough latitude to deal with the situation. I don't want to hurry and take risks just to keep you from blowing the operation sky high."
"I've given Breda the…"
"Colonel, I know."
"I know. I know exactly what we're all supposed to do. We've gone over it again and again. There's no time. Sir, I have to get going or I'll miss the first rendezvous."
Mustang's fists were clenched as she saluted; he had to force his hand open to return it.
"Be safe, Lieutenant. That's an order."
"Of course, sir. And while I'm gone…that stack in your inbox isn't getting any smaller. Come, Black Hayate."
Smiling and panting at the end of the leash, Hayate jumped up joyfully and settled in to heel for his master.
Mustang knew he should let it go, but he had to slip out to the hall to watch her as she disappeared out the doors into the bright sunlight. If Piper was alive, this was probably his last chance. If Piper was already dead, as seemed more and more likely, this was a risk they still had to take. Their enemy had to be found, identified, and stopped before they struck again.
His crew was severely hindered without Havoc to lead them in these covert operations. He'd coached the team, giving valuable direction and advice; but no one else had the comparable skill when it came to insinuating themselves into a scene, instantly sensing exactly the right approach, and executing the perfect maneuver with just the right timing to complete the mission. His track record was impeccable – no matter how complex and treacherous the situation, Havoc prevailed and then got out safely every time.
He had to trust Hawkeye, Breda and Fuery to do as they were told. They were to attempt to locate, but not engage, the enemy. Vickers' men were running the obvious leads to ground, but when it came to looking in densely populated civilian areas, the storm-trooper approach was not going to get them anywhere. It would run contrary to the Fuhrer's directive keep a low profile in the city; and it would alert their quarry, who would likely disappear, as they had been known to do before, until the heat was off.
Piper's firearm had been abandoned in a public trash bin in the middle of the city. At least that was the story the person gave who found it and attempted to sell it to the pawn shop. The proprietor identified it immediately as a military-issue weapon and confiscated it instead, turning it over for the modest reward.
And now the investigation had to go underground in the heart of that seemingly innocent commercial and industrial zone of the city.
Once the legwork was done he'd call in Havoc to participate in the actual strike against the enemy. And Hawkeye be damned, he'd be there too, using all of his ill-gained battle wiles to assure that all of his people were safe. This was the hardest part. The watching and waiting game was by far his worst. He almost abandoned the plan and followed her, but he had to concede that she'd probably shoot him on sight.
Instead, he grabbed the precarious pile from the inbox and took to his desk, grimly determined to maintain his tactician's self-control. His role was to keep the paperwork flowing timely to avoid calling any attention to their extra-curricular activities. It truly seemed like the least he could do.
Ever since the hypnosis, Edward's sleep disturbances increased dramatically. A new type of nightmare, marked by a sudden rise in his core body temperature, was added to the usual mix; the Major was coming to expect it each night. Once awake, he seemed to normalized quickly; but without intervention, the tossing and sweating went on and on. Armstrong knew the general rule about not interfering with nightmares, and that meant letting them run their course unless Ed's distress seemed too acute. He wasn't sure what to make of something that caused such a physical reaction, so at the point where Ed was perspiring freely, even if he was quiet otherwise, the Major gently rousted him back to safety.
From Ed's point of view, these new dreams were not like his other nightmares, exactly. The central theme was not terror. Infuriating, embarrassing, confusing, humiliating – yes. Even though some of the scenes played out in very frightening ways, fear was not the primary emotion.
His father's eyes were the worst, drilling into him with that fiercely judgmental stare. His perspective was still that of a small child, and he had to look up into the source of his despair. In his sleep, his head tipped back, positioning his head awkwardly on the pillow.
He wished he'd never heard that voice and the words that would forever haunt him..
"It saddens me that you've failed at this. If you had proper hand-eye coordination, I could work with you. But your freehand skills are abysmal. You're still behind in your development curve. I guess I was expecting too much."
"But…but…but…you were gonna teach me stuff! So we could do things together!"
"No, Edward. No. It's done. It seems that you're just a normal, human little boy after all. It's time, and I can't wait any longer to see if you're going to grow into anything more."
"Daddy, please! I'll try harder! I'll do better!"
"Sometimes it isn't about trying harder. Sometimes, when find out that you can't contribute anything of worth, you need to accept that everything is not about you and simply get out of the way. It's no longer your concern. What is that? You're not crying, are you? Stop that, Edward! Stop it immediately! At minimum you need to learn to behave like a man."
Those words…they didn't vary much. Because they were born of spotty, childish perception of his actual experiences, the message was always the same, loud and clear. Father had been ready to teach him everything. His potential as an apprentice was the only measure that mattered, the one thing he had that his father valued. It would have been a great honor, but he had failed to develop the motor skills quickly enough and he was not equal to the task. And so, because of that failure, the family was torn apart. His childish attempts at self-sufficiency were nothing but silly games, and though his mother tried to not to see it, it had to be obvious that he was a great disappointment. Sickened by the loneliness of being abandoned and saddled with the shameful dead weight of a useless heir apparent, the strain caused their mother to die. And his wanton disobedience in the face of her demise was nearly an act of murder against his poor, defenseless, trusting little brother.
He'd internalized those paternal messages, building on them, starting since he was knee-high. He'd learned to be a man, all right; that much was true. His shoulders bore every burden that came his way, no matter the cost. But replayed again and again, a hint of disbelief was creeping in. His father may have exposed his uselessness, but the old man was the one who flaked out and left them. Now, here he was, on the verge of making right all the wrongs he had caused and then some. But Hohenheim? He hadn't done anything but disappear. So who was the bigger disappointment, who was the smaller man, after all?
It fired Ed up, and continued to fire him up, every time the Major gently brought him out of these damnable nocturnal dramas. He had to succeed. Destroy the homunculi and prove the old asshole wrong. His dreams harped on it. His determination was never greater. If he was sometimes hardened and heartless in reaching for his goal, he came by it honestly, because the old man had set the standard for it long ago. That bastard was in all his nightmares now, too, and enough was enough. Someday he'd win and if he survived, he'd make the old jackal pay for every lousy thing he'd done, with interest.
The Major got a chill each time he tried to intervene and saw the dark, angry, sardonic grin that accompanied Ed's first moments of awakening. It was not an expression he'd ever seen on the boy, and it was so foreign to his personality that it actually gave the impression that he was, for those brief moments, another person entirely.
It was an immense relief when that look would fade, and Ed would awaken from the half-conscious depths of bitter determination and return to him, blinking in slightly dazed appreciation at the glass of water he offered.
But whatever this new nightmare was, Ed did not want to share much of it. It disturbed the giant alchemist enough that he wrote it up in his report to Dr. Gansworth. Instructed to continue to assist and observe for the time being, it didn't seem to be fading with time.
"Let's see your hand," he said quietly, waiting while Ed switched the glass into the automail hand and held out an open palm. The fingernail marks in the pad of his palm from his clenched fist were dark red but fading already. At least this time he hadn't broken the skin. He gave the open palm a pat.
"Is it the same dream, Edward?"
Ed nodded slightly as he sipped.
"Would you like to tell me more about it?"
Ed shook his head in negative response and sighed a nearly inaudible "thanks," handing back the water and wilting back down on the mattress, tired and determined to go straight back to sleep to get his rest. Tomorrow he would try working out more, concentrate on gaining more ground, and that would require a rested body and mind.
Al snored softly across the room, his lightly medicated sleep undisturbed. Havoc shifted in the far bed, easing from alert, no longer listening intently for any indication that his assistance might be needed.
Armstrong took to his chair across the room to resume his silent turn at watch.
Master Sergeant Fuery fiddled with the knobs, bringing up the volume to test the monitoring equipment one last time before deciding which settings were optimal. The wireless set was working pretty well but it was temperamental when there were a lot of structures in broadcast range.
"You still read me, Bird One?"
"No problem. Now heel, Hayate." Too wary to be smug, Hawkeye nevertheless felt a moment of satisfaction that Hayate not only lent his powerful nose and tracking skills to the project, but he was the perfect misdirection as well, giving her the freedom to speak to Fuery under the guise of talking to her pet. "Are you listening?"
"I hear you loud and clear," Fuery's voice piped into her ear through the small earpiece, concealed by her hair. "I have contact with Bird Two. He's at the end of Main, no sign of anything out of the ordinary. I'm not observing anything unusual, either."
Hawkeye interrupted her travel to bend down and scratch her pup under the chin; her peripheral vision told her that no one was in sight, so she indulged in a good, long look around before setting the dog to heel and moving on. The street was dead quiet, almost eerily so, for what should be a fairly busy time of day.
"Just see that you stay out of sight. I'm heading your way. I'll be in visual range momentarily."
She did a double-take at the same time Hayate jerked to the end of the leash, hackles rising, a sudden, no-nonsense growl rumbling in his throat.
She could swear there was no one anywhere for blocks in either direction a moment ago. But now, just a few strides away, a person had appeared.
"Bad dog, Hayate. Don't bother the nice young man."
The dog, crisply trained, stood down and only the bristled fur on his spine signaled his unresolved state of alert.
It was a young adult male with light hair, of slight build, not unlike Ed and Al. Empty-handed, face turned down so that his features were largely hidden, and strolling a little too quickly, he seemed to be rather…like she was. Pretending to be casual but in fact fully aware of the situation, and in particular conscious of the person nearby.
For a moment she suspected that the Colonel had sent unannounced backup; but Hayate's reactions clearly told her otherwise even before the unfamiliar face lifted to deliver a shameless stare. She gathered the leash up tight and moved forward, bringing her closer to the frowning man.
"Good morning," she called out cheerfully, as if he were any other passerby.
"Hmph," Envy grumbled. If it wasn't for the damned dog, she might make a decent meal for Rage. But after scrutinized the woman he concentrated on the animal, sizing it up carefully, and tossed that thought aside. No, it would set up a racket, and this was far too close to the entrance of their place to be calling attention to it.
A strange voice piped up just as she got even with him. Someone else was behind her, and she couldn't imagine how she could have missed him as well. She turned her head just enough to see that the person was male, bald and quite obese; it was incredible that she hadn't seen him.
It was too much for Hayate; he broke silence and began barking furiously. She hauled up short on the leash.
"No, boy! Down! Quiet!"
Envy made a split-second decision to deny himself the satisfaction of erasing the woman and her annoying pet; instead he took Gluttony's arm as he passed, dragging the huge moron along abruptly back the way he came.
"About time you showed up. You're late. Let's go!"
"Shut up and move!" Envy snarled. How many times had they told the idiot oaf to stop hunting so close to here? His solo kills were incredibly clumsy, messy and loud. They staggered a few steps before Envy checked over his shoulder, making sure she wouldn't see when he whisked them up and away. Other people were on the street now, rounding the corner at the end of the block.
The lady was smart enough to keep moving, dragging that annoying mutt along with her. It was obeying her and being quiet. Now if only he could get the same cooperation from this dumb, fat two-legged animal.
An electric chill went up and down Riza's spine when she turned slightly to steal a look at the strange men, only to see an empty sidewalk. She turned and gasped, and Hayate whined in confusion.
"Bird One to Base. Did you see that?"
"You're not in visual yet, One. Is something wrong? Did something happen?"
"There are some very strange people in the area. Young male, light brown to dark blond hair, slight build, average height. He's with a bald adult male, short and heavyset, I just got a glimpse. Let me know if you see them."
"I haven't seen anyone who fits the description. Foot traffic's picking up. More people will be coming your way."
"Good boy! You're such a good dog!"
"Who's near you, Lieutenant? Is there a problem?"
"It's fine, you two can pet him if your mother doesn't mind." Her voice was a little distant, suggesting that her head was lifted and away from the microphone, talking with someone else. Still clear, though, and that was a relief. At least her equipment was functioning properly.
Fuery restrained his urge to lean out the window to try and catch a glimpse of her. The tower was good strategically for observing and broadcasting; but it was supposed to be abandoned, and he had to stay in the shadow, out of sight. She was so close…
Finally! He saw her and the panting dog, strolling into view, nodding to the others on the street. Hayate seemed friendly and untroubled by the passers-by. She was clear of anyone close to her now.
"Base, there's been no reaction since that first encounter. Keep looking for those two men I described. Alert Bird Two." Riza paused again to pet Hayate and casually palm the scrap of Piper's undershirt beneath the dog's busy sniffer.
"Wilco." Fuery switched channels and gave the descriptions to a puzzled Breda.
The rest of the recon mission turned up nothing. The homunculi had managed to appear and distract the dog at the point where their disturbing scent was concentrated and easily detectable in the environment. It would have been a brilliant plan on their part to stop the dog from pinpointing their home base, had it been a plan. But it was just dumb luck that kept their location a secret, and so far, luck had been on their side.
"You don't have to ask one of them to take you. We don't have to split up this time. I'll go with you."
Ed's voice was soft, but the words completely startled Al.
"You want to?" Al asked, resettling the books he'd nearly dropped into the crook of his arm.
"Yeah. It's been…I guess it's been a long time."
"I'm glad you're in the mood and feeling up to going," Armstrong said, scrutinizing Ed with great concern while trying to conceal his skepticism. He had been getting ready to distract Ed with some exercises to reduce the usual anxiety he experienced when Al left the room without him. Was this just another attempt to avoid letting Al out of his sight, or did he really have an interest in the visiting the library again? "Did you feel like you want to read something? If you like, they can bring you back some books."
"I want to go there and look for myself. I want to go with Al."
"Is there anything in particular you're interested in? Or did you just feel like getting out and walking?" Havoc pitched in.
"Yeah, do need to stretch your legs a little and get moving around, kind of like yesterday when we went to the rec hall?" Al asked.
"Yeah. Or, no. I mean, I'll be fine this time. That was…that room…anyway. The library. It's all right."
"You don't have to push yourself, Edward. If you need to get out and stretch your legs, we can take a stroll in the hallway while they're gone."
Ed's look grew cross.
"I'm not pushing anything, I just want to go with my brother to the damned library. Shit like that is easy for me. Why wouldn't it be?"
"Of course. Well then, would you like to get ready?" Armstrong gave up warily. Ed was just as insistent yesterday, and while the walk to the recreation room went well enough, something in the room itself disturbed him right off. The return trip was more of an abortive dash, Ed far in the lead and running like the very devil was after him. Fortunately, he didn't collide with anyone at the blind corners, and despite his agitated state, navigated straight back to their room. Once they caught up and rejoined him, they found him with his back turned to them sitting cross-legged on his bed, panting. Stoic and silent, he acted as though nothing had happened, and refused to discuss it with any of them.
They were lucky to get off so easily. Nothing of that nature would be allowed to take place this time. Armstrong was determined to stay in arms reach and nab him immediately if he tried to take off.
"I used to go there all the time. There's nothing to it," Ed said, the return of slight uncertainty making that almost a question. He tugged up on his pants, in the back of his mind wondering again why they hadn't found him the belt he asked for yet. He skipped the soft slippers, nose wrinkling with yet another point of dissatisfaction. They were loose and floppy and made for slow going. The socks would be good enough. Either way, he would look less than properly dressed. They needed to give him some real shoes, if not boots, and stop making excuses. The impatience he felt with their lack of responsiveness to his need for clothing and footwear added a little cranky wind to his determined sails. It was simply not working, this asking and then waiting for permission to do normal things in normal ways. Difficult or not, he was forging ahead and making his own opportunities to merge back into the mainstream.
"That's very true, Edward. It has been a while, though."
"I still know how to get there. I can take you, Al, come on. You guys can take some time off and kick back while we're gone." Ed held out an open palm expectantly. If they'd all just go with his flow, momentum would carry him through any doubts that might crop up, he was sure of it. They just had to pick up and go before those doubts took shape.
Al nodded, waiting for the military men to chime in. He hated to admit it, but the way things had been going, he was not at all confident that the two of them should be going anywhere without them, not even in the relative protection and control of the interior hallways. And if he wasn't mistaken, there was no way to get to the library without passing through one of the glass-walled sections of the corridors.
The look in Ed's eyes bothered him, too. What he said sounded reasonable, but his self-assured speech contrasted sharply with his hyper-alert, almost grim countenance. His extended hand, trembling visibly, wasn't offered for more than a few seconds before it dropped quickly to his side to conceal his jitters. It was obvious that he was pushing himself hard to try and seem casual and in control. He must think that he was putting up a good front.
It made no sense. This was not an issue. It was not an important trip, it was just to browse for something to read; he'd have skipped it if he'd known it was going to be a problem. But Ed had no patterns, he made no sense, and Al was trying to stop asking any questions that began with "why" because he already knew there was no real answer.
The library was more of an escape from the constant pressure of dealing with Ed's issues anyway. It was part of the reason that Armstrong and Havoc took turns escorting him there – they all relished the somewhat guilty relief of these short breaks. If this was destined to fail there was definitely no point in going at all. But what was Ed's true motive? Did he really feel the urge to go there, to browse through the shelves or perhaps to try and remember how he spent his days 'working' there? Did he need this? It was impossible to know what response would yield the best outcome here.
Al was slow to reach out in response; an uncomfortable moment of silence stretched between them.
Doc said to keep letting him try when he asked to venture out, Havoc reflected skeptically, convinced that this jaunt would end up being aborted before they made it to the main corridor.
"Don't answer me, then. Just come on."
Tugging up on his pants again, Ed turned and led the way out the door. To Al's relief, Havoc and Armstrong came right along wordlessly, as if it were expected. Ed didn't seem to have noticed, or if he did, he didn't care.
So much of Ed's resolve and energy was spent by the time they arrived at the worn double doors, it felt like a huge victory to pass through them. This was familiar in so many ways it was hard to sort it all out. His head throbbed with disorganized old memories, a tumble of mixed raw impressions going back to the first time he burst in to the repository, full of unbridled determination. Strutting into this place as a fresh recruit, he half-expected to find that the military had already amassed all of the elements of the information he would need to invent a method to use to restore their bodies. When he first laid eyes on the sheer number of shelves dedicates to alchemy, it sent a painful thrill of validated hope into his heart that he would never forget. At that moment he dared to believe that his gamble in joining the damned military was the best thing he could have done, and that their quest would end in success quickly and easily beyond their wildest expectations because of it.
Then the days turned into weeks of reading, re-reading, researching…and the feeling, then, of realizing just how wrong he had been. Absorbing the text of the last book on the last section of the last shelf on alchemy found them no closer to an answer. After weeks of sitting here on this very floor, diligently researching, it was an awful dose of cold, unavoidable reality. Then naïve hope again, months later, rushing to the back stacks, meeting up to receive his copy of Scheszka's amazing reproduction of Dr. Marcoh's lost manuscript. Was Al with him that time? He couldn't quite remember. Surely he'd been here many times since then, but the middleground was nothing but a blur; literally nothing else would come to mind about this place until the vague impression of sleepwalking among the books the day Mustang's hands shook him awake with the order to report to the library daily for reading assignments. Things blurred after that, too, right up to the present. He didn't remember following that order, exactly, but he'd been told that he did so faithfully for some time. Even though this place didn't feel all that safe and secure. Even though he could swear he'd had some kind of bad experience here, something so bad he was hesitant to dig deeper for it.
"It's all right to go on in. We'll probably be the only ones here looking for something," Alphonse whispered tentatively, quiet not only in deference to library etiquette, but to encourage Ed by example. He guessed that Ed was hesitating out of caution, but the place was pretty much empty this time of day except for staff.
It took a few moments for Ed to shake himself out of his struggle with the attempt to remember more about his recent experiences here. It wasn't going to come to him soon enough, so he gave up for now; he didn't want them to think he was having a problem being here.
"I know that." It was disturbing to be in a place where people could be moving around so close but out of view, behind shelves and stacks and partitions; a light sweat broke out on his neck. He could do this, but it was going to be harder than he expected.
"Do you want me to help you find something?"
"What? No, I don't need any help. Go on, I'm going to look on my own." In a choice between having them close for security and having them go elsewhere to make sure they wouldn't see if he started to slip…he had to try to do this with as little scrutiny as possible.
"It's okay, Brother. You haven't been here in a while, let me…"
Ed slapped Al's hand away with a cross look and walked to the closest shelf in wordless dismissal.
Havoc held his breath and stepped up, catching Al to head off his attempt to follow. He made a few gestures, effectively communicating that the Major would be watching Ed and that they needed to talk a little further away.
"You all right?" Havoc whispered.
"Yeah." Al rubbed his hand, contemplating how a blow with such minor force could be so hurtful and embarrassing.
"I think he just needs his space. We'll keep an eye on him. Go ahead and browse, just like you would if he's not here. If he needs help, he'll ask."
"But I was going to stick around and see if he needs me."
"He told you he doesn't want you to do that."
"He's not gonna like you guys helping him, either!"
"We can watch him without being obvious. Give us some credit. It's best if you just go ahead and get your books like you usually do. That seems to be what he wants."
"Whatever!" Al pushed past Havoc, fighting the urge to dump all the books off the shelves onto the floor along the way.
He stalked up and down a few rows to cool off before finding that he'd come to a halt at the section on psychology. No one else was on the aisle, and maintaining some space while he calmed down was his main goal, so this was as good a spot as any. He'd read most of the books here that looked like they might give him some insight into Ed's behavior, to no avail. It was all theory and mumbo-jumbo; actualization this and repression that, where was the practical application of all that crap? The most promising books, the ones that had information on treatment, were out on long-term loan. He didn't have to ask to figure out it was Gansworth that took them.
Al's fist started for the row of books at eye-level, driven by a burst of frustration, but his self-control won out. His knuckles came to rest softly on the well-worn spines and he left his hand there for some time, staring at the contrast between his pale, bony extremity and the muted, multi-colored bindings. Here was the product of years of work by faceless experts in the field, bound up proper by their diligent publishers in well-crafted covers with attractive designs. Out there life was boiling with industrious activity; people were writing, creating, producing with all their hearts. Helping their world and their fellow man and basking in the satisfaction of jobs well done. From the writer, to the priest, to the garbage man, to the waitress and everyone in between, they all had something important that he did not - a commitment to a path in life.
He thought he had one, more or less, when he made this whole-hearted promise to stay with Ed until he could bring him home. It never occurred to him that Ed might make better progress without his help than with it. It certainly never crossed his mind that his presence would actually interfere with his brother's recovery. But now that he thought about it, Havoc and Armstrong were always warning him not to make things worse. He always took it to mean at the moment. But put a lot of those moments together…did it add up to primarily negative influence on his part?
The idea that Ed would rather go on to recover and walk out these accursed doors without having him around was terrifying. What if his personality changed completely and they ended up the kind of brothers that were virtual strangers? He could imagine it vividly; the hollow feeling of responding to the casual question of siblings with the sad fact that he had a brother but they never saw one another anymore. That try as he might to extend invitations and offers to drop by, the elder Elric always seemed have some excuse or another until postponements stretched beyond days and weeks into months and years and years and years...
His fingers trailed along the edge of the shelf slowly. He had to find a way back into Ed's…was it his heart he was locked out of? His memory? His trust? Was it because of the incident at the Gate?
For a moment it was almost too much effort to continue to stand here and accept the situation. Ed wouldn't even tolerate his offer of help to find a book. The constant togetherness in physical proximity coupled with the perpetual isolation of their emotional relationship caused his pain to grow exponentially each time he reached out, only to be rebuffed.
He went down on one knee, turning his head a bit sideways so that any observer passing his aisle would think he was examining the titles on the bottom row; but in fact his watery eyes saw nothing but a blur. It was too damned quiet; his worried thoughts felt loud enough to be heard in the hallways and beyond. He pulled out two books at random and opened one on his thigh to make his pose complete. No one bothers a reader in this place unless it was urgent. This book was his shield and he used it to the fullest, reining in his fear and slowly regaining control of himself.
It took a while, but eventually he regained his balance, and it was okay. All this emotion was over a little slap to the hand that happened because Ed was feeling pissy and independent. It wasn't like he was really independent, nor would he be soon. There was no reason to go flying off into outer space over it. Sheesh. Havoc could stuff it if he thought he was going to hide out back here any longer. He picked up the books and went to find Ed, ready for anything. The only thing consistent about his brother's mood and mental status was that it changed constantly. The best approach was to act as if nothing happened and see if things were better now, aware as always that they might be much worse.
Ed's ability to find the book that slithered in and out of his conscious memory while battling back the pressure of one minor panic attack upon another was nothing less than a miracle. He managed a few words with Scheszka and immediately forgot exactly what was said, but he was pretty sure it was meaningless, and that the main thing was that she offered to help him and he let her know he was fine on his own. He managed a more-or-less acceptable presence even as he wasted twenty minutes combing fiction with author's names starting in "U" before it dawned on him that the author of the non-fiction work he sought was "Tzu." It was fine because no one was the wiser; they had no idea he was looking for something specific.
He was clutching that book, white-knuckled and not sure what to do next, when Al's whisper startled him.
"I found what I wanted. Are you ready to go back?" Al asked softly, noting with worry that several strands of blond hair were stuck to Ed's forehead with beads of sweat unrelated to the room's temperature. It was quite cool, to the point where he'd had goosebumps earlier. The amber eyes looked a little wild and glassy even before he was startled, and now they were positively huge. Concern, coupled with anger at the Major and Havoc for failing to see the stress of allowing this to continue, gave Al a momentary blush of irritation, but with Ed's eyes upon him he shook it off in favor of a sympathetic smile.
Ed stammered but didn't get a word out, swallowing hard. He sensed the Major and Havoc approaching and tried to pull himself together quickly, directing his gaze back down at the book in his hands.
Al was thoroughly impressed; Ed's ability to work through the thought process of selecting even this single book was an amazing feat. His own hands still held only the two psychology books he'd pulled off the shelf at random, unable to concentrate enough to browse at all, much less find his usual haul of five or six.
"Oh, look, you found something! Art of War?" Al read the cover with gentle enthusiasm. "That's what you wanted, huh? Or did you just think it looked interesting?"
Finally rounding up his wits, Ed felt exposed, aware that maybe he shouldn't let them know that finding this book was the reason he thought of coming here in the first place; it was only in afterthought that the idea evolved into his determination to make regular trips to the library, as a natural part of his plan to start getting out on his own. But he wanted the book for several reasons, not just to secretly prepare himself for the difficult battles that were sure to come. And those other reasons should throw them off the scent well enough.
"Mustang told me to study it once," Ed replied reluctantly. "It was the only thing I saw right off that I wanted to read that I hadn't read already. Well, not that I really want to read it. I mean, he told me to, so, you know…I've got time now…so it seemed like I should. That I should read it. Because, um…"
"Hey, you don't have to have a reason to read a book," Al assured him. The hardback Ed held up was trembling slightly; and nearly hidden at his side, the little finger of the automail hand was starting to jitter rapidly side to side. His nerves were getting worse, not better, the longer they stayed here. He juggled his books into one arm and reached out, hoping to take Ed's arm or at least clasp his shoulder to reassure him. But Ed's brow knit in that dark look again and the automail flew up to knock his hand aside with the same dry dismissal as before.
The Major and Havoc materialized from their points of observation at this first sign of possible trouble. Before either of them could speak, Ed beat them to the punch.
"Can we go now? I have a…I mean I'm getting a headache."
"Sure," Al said, irritated that his answer was in unison with the Major's, who must have annoyingly assumed that the conversation was his now. He swallowed and smiled unsurely. Ed managed the entire trip without losing control at all. If it weren't for the emotional stress plainly visible in his every move, his visit here would have looked pretty much like anyone else's. That was good, right? But somehow it made him feel a little sick inside. He couldn't figure it out at first, but as they started out on the difficult journey back to their room, it hit him. It didn't feel like Ed was coming back to him; it felt more like he was finding a way to make it appear that he was while in fact he was hiding further and further away. They came all this way, and for Ed it was a tremendously difficult task, but he wasn't sharing any of it. Fighting to put up a brave front took such monumental effort it was a wonder he was still functioning. Whether or not the goal was to remain apart from everyone and prevent anyone from helping, especially his brother, it was definitely the end result.
Ed took that one-word response as his permission to go and did so immediately, dismissing the library and its respective check-out procedures without a second thought.
Havoc considered whether he should hang back long enough to let Scheszka know they were leaving and tell her what had been taken, but decided it could wait. From what he could see, it wasn't just Ed that was suffering from stress, and the potential for both of their charges to start acting out was pretty high. He tried putting a hand on Al's shoulder only to have it shaken off with a quick, irritable twist of resistance. It was a silent exchange but the tension was almost palpable.
They had to pass the large windows and the added distraction was almost too much. Unsteady and starting to stumble, Ed's shoulder bumped hard into rock-hard muscle; the Major took him gently by the upper arm, sensing he was getting very near his limit.
"Let's slow down a bit, lad. We need to walk in the corridors."
Ed's arm was slick with sweat, and he pulled away at first, getting a little disoriented, almost going down to his knees. Havoc took the opportunity to step up, regrettably cutting off Al's attempt to help, and got a good hold on his other arm under the guise of preventing him from falling. In a smooth move he relieving Ed of his book and passed it over for Al to carry.
"Easy, there, Boss," Havoc smiled, matching Armstrong's pace as they started off again, Ed held close between them. "Don't want you to fall."
Ed realized that he should be arguing to make them let go. This didn't fit in with his plan to look and act properly, independently, like a fully recovered person should. But the strongest emotions in response to their intervention were relief and appreciation; he didn't have the energy to push them away on principle. He had to settle for faking an objection, making sure to keep it at the grumbling level to reduce the chance that they'd actually listen and let him go.
"I don't need any help," he said, finally finding his voice again. "I can walk by myself."
"I know, lad, but humor us, we like to feel useful," Armstrong quipped.
"We're not hurting you, are we?" Havoc asked.
"Shit. No, of course not," Ed said, now having to concentrate on the forced pace as it steadily increased. He felt like breaking away and running when they passed the window earlier, it was true, but things were better now that they were past that area and he felt securely flanked. That urge to sprint back was gone and the associated rush of energy disappeared along with it. It wasn't easy with his comparatively short legs to stay in time with these two.
"It makes them feel better. Just go along with it and let them do their thing, Brother," Al piped in, scurrying along to keep up.
The men were taking long, fast strides and hustling along, nearly at a speed to break their own rule about walking. They were determined to make the return trip quick and controlled; it had taken quite a bit of time and effort to passively stand by, monitoring the boys as Ed worked through the process when they ventured out. The windows, as they suspected, we a huge issue. They'd wondered if it would be helpful for Ed to take a walk specifically to come look out once or twice a week, to give him a chance to get used to looking outside and not be so alarmed every time he saw daylight, the daylight Al was so starved for. Gansworth was still unsure if Ed was up to it, mulling over the suggestion, and in the meanwhile, this issue was nowhere near resolving itself.
Ed finally got them to slow down, crying out that they were going too fast, wresting out of their grasp and shoving Havoc away because the pressure he exerted on the automail to pull him along reached the point where it was becoming very painful. He thought it was an understandable demand, done in a reasonable way, and he couldn't imagine why they converged on him so suddenly, flattening him against the wall until the Major lifted him up and put him over his shoulder, kicking in protest. Havoc grabbed his hands to immobilize his arms as he followed and in that strange manner they made it the rest of the way back into the room. Had Ed been able to catch his breath he would have been cursing them roundly, but being slung over the Major's shoulder with his hands pulled down low, there was too much pressure on his solar plexus to allow him to waste effort on anything but struggling for breath.
When they released him it was by dropping him onto his bed, both hovering and keeping him pinned down to see what he would do next.
His ribs hurt, his stomach ached, and he needed more air than he'd been getting, so as much as he would have liked to give them a piece of his mind, he panted breathlessly and tried to curl up to relieve the pain.
Al watched them as he dumped the books on the table and grabbed up a waste can. Ed looked like he was going to hurl. What the hell, why were they so rough with him?
"Hey, let him go, he doesn't feel good!" Al scowled, taking hold of Havoc's arm to pull him back.
The Major and Havoc were already looking at one another, silently deciding whether it was safe to do just that. Now they'd have to deal with Al's rising temper as well.
"Edward, here." Armstrong reached over and offered the coat from the foot of the bed. Ed didn't seem to be able to focus on it, so he placed it in Ed's hand anyway.
"Hard to…breathe…" Ed barely managed.
"Don't just stand there, do something!" Al yanked at Havoc's arm.
"Panic attack, or..?" Havoc tried to settle Al down by patting his hand, seeking Armstrong's guidance due to his greater experience with Ed's issues, unsure which way to help.
"Probably. But let's be safe." Armstrong replied, already unlocking a cabinet and bringing out the portable oxygen tank and mask.
"Hold on, buddy, calm down. You're in your room, everything's all right."
Ed closed his eyes and shook his head, trying to keep from panicking because it wasn't getting any easier to breathe like it should be, and the need for air was becoming painfully acute.
"It is, Ed, it's okay, it's over. We're all here, you're safe," Al said, putting a hand on his cheek to try and comfort him, only to have Armstrong brush it aside in trade for the mask.
Ed was gasping by then, clearly afraid. Armstrong almost removed the mask again, leaning more toward panic attack as the cause of his distress; but Ed grabbed the mask with his free hand and pressed it desperately into his face, trying to get the air to fill his lungs and stop that terrible, animalistic fear and pain.
"Okay, okay, you can have it, just try not to breathe too fast,"
Ed's strained attempt at a cough finally gave them the information that he could not verbalize; with its tight, high pitched sound, the physical constriction of his airway was plainly evident.
"Inhaler. Get his inhaler."
"Here! Hurry!" Al had remembered and fished into the back of the forbidden cabinet to grab it just a moment before.
Ed was cringing and trying his best, but even with his cooperation it was difficult for the Major to help him get any of the medicine administered effectively.
"I hit the button twice," Al said, watching Ed struggle red-faced. "Damn it! They might take too long, should I go get somebody? I'll go!"
"Hang on, don't panic, they'll come. He's starting to get some air now. You hear, me, Ed? You've got plenty of air, it should be getting better. I know it's hard but you need to try and relax. Let the medicine do its job."
He tried to tell them that he didn't feel the acrid mist get far enough in his airway, that it helped but he needed more, but he couldn't get the words to form.
"Ed, stop fighting, it just makes it worse!" Al called out, frustrated by the shoulders blocking him.
"Let's try another dose," the Major said, with a calm that concealed his true feelings. "Easy, now, as big a breath as you can manage."
Calling himself names for every time he'd complained about the nasty stuff, Ed sucked it in greedily. This time he felt the pungent mist permeate all of the way into his strangulated passages. The medication and the lessening fear worked magic to open his airway; he'd never been so grateful for the mere act of taking in oxygen.
Once his breathing was back to normal, it still took a few minutes before he was able to focus on anything else. He noted with little interest the somewhat irrelevant room full of concerned people, including, now, the pair that responded from the infirmary and Fahlman from the front desk. Ed felt like he'd come through pretty well. He was a perfect picture of sanity and composure, easily able to repress the urge to punch somebody in repayment for all the rough handling and disregard for his wishes. He was a little dazed from the experience, and he was relieved that it was over, but he had no reason to think or talk about it now.
"Where's my book?" was all that he asked, trying to control the panting.
A flummoxed Al took a moment, not understanding right off, before fetching it.
"Thanks, Al. We should...go again…soon. I'll try to think…of more things…I want to read."
"Uh…" Al cocked his head as Ed opened the book and started to shift on his side to read it, as if they were alone in the room.
The medical corpsmen couldn't let it go at that; but given Ed's unreliable mental status, they decided to settle for a perfunctory examination to avoid provoking him, so long as they saw nothing unusual. Ed's respiratory attack, whether emotional or physical, appeared to be resolved and the only lingering effect seemed to be a flummoxed audience.
"Maybe tomorrow," Ed said offhandedly, turning a page. Be cool and maybe they'll stop looking at me. "I don't think it'll take me long to read this."
"I need you to sit up, sir. Then look this way for me, please."
Ed cringed as rubber-gloved hands pulled him up, hoping they would finish and go away while he still had it together. A penlight light glared in his eyes and fingers tugged at his eyelids, one then another. He opened wide, tipped his head back, took a deep breath that made him cough uncontrollably for several minutes, all the while wishing fiercely for escape from prying human attention.
"I just want my book," he said, exhausted, finally running dry of patience and composure but no energy left to fight. "Come on. Enough. Please."
"I'm sorry. We're almost done, sir."
He caught Al staring at him with the worst expression and a desperate surge of frustrated anger welled up.
"I'm fine, all right? These guys didn't have to come here. You all overreacted! Don't look at me like I'm gonna die or something! Don't waste everybody's time!"
He jerked when a familiar voice startled him, wincing. Perfect. Could this have blown up in his face any bigger? Instead of advancing his posture as a man completely well and ready for duty, this had done quite the opposite.
"Easy, there, Fullmetal. Why don't you tell me what's going on here?"
Mustang wasn't angry at all. He sounded sympathetic, concerned, soothing…sure indications that he assumed Ed was in need of help beyond what the corpsmen could provide.
Ed promptly clammed up, rubbing his face to hide the fiery blush of mortification. This was so screwed up. This was the person who needed to understand that he was ready for active duty now. He still had some issues, but everybody did, if they eliminated soldiers for having issues there wouldn't be any left. Well, maybe Havoc. And Breda. But other than that…
"He's really had a rough day, sir," Havoc offered, the Major nodding in agreement.
"I can see that. Let him speak if he can."
Can? He had to respond now, and quickly, to prove he was lucid and together. He gathered up more composure than he would have thought possible a moment ago.
"It's nothing, sir. Just got a little out of breath. They, uh…" Ed forced an amused chuckle, just to be extra convincing, before rushing to explain how minor the whole incident really was. "They kind of got carried away worrying but it wasn't anything. I can't blame them for overreacting, I guess they're just so used to looking out for me when I was, you know, in bad shape, that they still…ya know…do that."
"Oh. I see." Mustang saw the raised eyebrows around the room and nodded. Ed certainly had his wits about him now. His version of the events seemed carefully chosen and clearly surprised everyone else.
"I mean, if I thought there was anything serious enough to report, I'd have done it myself. Right away. So, yeah. No problem here, Colonel. None at all," Ed smiled tightly.
"Well. I appreciate the report, Fullmetal. Good to know. Gentlemen, is it all under control now?"
"It appears that his inhaler was effective and he's not suffering any of the symptoms now. He does seem fatigued, not unexpected after such a severe attack. Other than that, he's fine, sir."
"Excellent. Nice to hear that there's no need for concern. Carry on. Good work, everyone. You took appropriate action, your response was timely, and you exercised the kind of due caution I expect from my men at all times."
Ed hid his resentment that the praise seemed to be aimed at everyone but him. The Colonel was already leaving, and he barely resisted the urge to tell them all off for putting him through this ridiculous wringer for no reason and making him look bad in front of his superior. Appropriate action? Wrestling the life and breath out of him damned near for good was the appropriate action? Due caution, what due caution?
"Glad it was a false alarm. Keep me posted. And, by the way, Fullmetal," Mustang said as he paused in the doorway to take a last look. "Nice choice of reading material."
Ed startled and looked up, but it was too late to see if the dark eyes were mocking or serious – he was already turning away, and in a heartbeat he was gone.
It had to be a serious comment; after all, the book had been Mustang's recommendation. This was a point in his favor. And once he read it, he could use the book as a talking point and engage the frustrating bastard in a conversation; one that would let his genius shine and let the Colonel know that while he might be superior in rank, intelligence was another matter entirely. And once he bested the old man and showed him just how clever and sharp he was, there would be no arguing that he wasn't mentally fit for duty. It was a shitty day but in the end, it was well worth it. His concentration on this strategy was so intense that the medics finished their exam and left without ever gaining his attention again.
"He's going to have some bruising, but otherwise he seems fine. There really isn't anything you need to watch him for."
"Yeah and…oh…" the shorter medic held his breath for a moment; across the room, Al was perching next to Ed on the bed and having a look for himself, asking Ed if he was ready to have his automail maintenance for the day. There really wasn't much reaction, and the medic exhaled, shaking his head.
"Sorry, just wanted to see how that was going to go. He is very tight and tense, and I was surprised how cooperative he was. Guess maybe he is doing a little better. Anyhow. Let us know if you have any concerns. We're on call tonight until two A.M."
"Thanks for your help." Havoc saw them to the door. The Major was making no bones about hovering close to Ed while Al started up his usual routine. It was probably as much to calm Al's worried nerves as it was to take care of the automail. Ed was completely serene now, a little unfocused, going off into his zen mode and allowing the process to relax him.
Better? Havoc wondered, not sure how the medic arrived at that assessment. Ed's behavior is better? Maybe being to close to him day in and day out made it hard to see his progress.
Regardless, he took a seat at the foot of the bed, ignoring Al's slight annoyance at the extra supervision.
Rage crept along the wall, trying hard to remain unnoticed. The argument went on and on between his mother and the others. Some of it was well beyond his ability to fully understand, but he was pretty sure it had something to do with the food he got, and how his mother got it for him. They were so angry, and his little body vibrated in tune with the intensity of their emotion. He knew he should go back and stay hidden in the tunnel, because the risk of being caught at any minute was great, but the anger attracted him irresistibly. It went without saying that he would incur the wrath of his parent when he got caught here in the 'off-limits' area. He'd come to cherish that wrath; when Envy came at him kicking and punching, there was no doubt that he had every bit of his mama's attention. He healed almost immediately, so it wasn't like the pain mattered to him all that much. And it made Envy feel better, because there seemed to be a lot of anger that needed venting, and afterward they sometimes even cuddled. Well, maybe it wasn't real cuddling, not like he'd seen those strange human mamas do with their little ones. But if there was enough damage from the beating, mama would worry a little and gather him up to check and make sure he was still alive and going to heal. Those were the best moments of all.
Mama was going to start teaching him how to hunt for himself soon. He could hardly wait. It was so lonely, waiting all alone in the tunnel. Those others always yelled at him and ran him off when he tried to join them for company, so he'd given up on finding a way to get close to them. He spent a fair share of time sitting still and quiet, just close enough to hear their voices as they shrieked and argued, settling for their noise for company.
At no time did he worry that his mother was in danger. He had every confidence that Envy was invincible. He curled up, resting his head on the cold dirt floor, smiling, enjoying the sound of that familiar angry roar even though it wasn't meant for him. Mama would be there soon enough, and he decided not to hide, but to be obvious in his disobedience and easily discovered. He had to get all the attention possible at any opportunity. It was too soon to expect a meal so punishment was the best he could hope for today.
When the noise died down, he lifted his head in anticipation and held his breath. The sound of someone approaching filled him with hope and a touch of fear.
Not one silhouette, but two appeared in the reflected light. Lust and Gluttony's shapes, not his mother's, filled the entrance to the tunnel. Rage skittered back, trying to find cover, regretting the decision to stay exposed.
He knew they saw him. He knew it was useless to hide. But self-preservation kept him moving, hoping they were just passing by with some business further down the passageway, unrelated to him.
The fat, slobbering homunculus was incredibly swift, and Rage was gripped in his sausage-like fingers in a heartbeat,
"Your mommy needs to learn that there are consequences for misbehaving," she purred, tracing a sharp talon-like finger along Rage's cheek, leaving a deep slice in its wake. "You're going to help me teach that lesson."
Rage whimpered and gave up on struggling, afraid to talk back, completely overpowered by the comparatively massive captor.
"I like that look on your face," she went on, licking the blood off her finger seductively while waving for Gluttony to bring him along. "If you're lucky enough to grow up big and strong, we might have fun together. I can show you how to play all of my favorite big boy games. "
He wasn't sure what she meant but the proposition chilled him as much as the threat.
They hauled him out of the tunnel and threw him down on the floor, trembling, in the glaring lights of their lair.
"I'm glad that you requested this session, Edward. I'm sorry I wasn't able to see you sooner; it was my intent to fit in a session last week but there were some scheduling issues and yours had to wait, since you're not in a state of dire emergency. I'd like to follow up on your impressions of the relaxation techniques we experimented with." Gansworth presented a measured smile, and did a little double-take. He reached out carefully, intending to tip Ed's head towards the light, but the boy flinched back; it just happened to move his head in the right direction anyway. "Hold on, now, I just want to take a look at that."
"Yeah, I know, it's nothing. It's just a bruise."
"So I see. It's a very big bruise, isn't it? Would you like to tell me how it happened?
"I don't know. Bumped into something, I guess. It's nothing. I'm fine."
"Can you move your jaw for me, please? Open…and close…sideways right…left…how is the pain?"
"Doesn't hurt." Ed reluctantly allowed the doctor's manipulations, turning his head this way and that, prying open his eyelids, feeling the pulse in his neck. It wasn't so much that he minded. But he had business to take care of, and he felt a little nervous and impatient to get to the point, worried about his ability to get the information he needed without revealing his reasons for it.
"You do seem to be fine; I'll save the rest of the exam for later. Where would you like to be for this? You can stay there if you like."
"Here. Wherever. Just sit down, will ya? Don't hang over me like that."
Gansworth slipped off his white coat, and draped it over the back of the chair he pushed to the bedside. The Major looked up from his spot, seated at the table across the room, and gave him a nod before going back to writing. Ed had asked for them to meet alone but had conceded the Major's presence, only if he was not part of the session. That was a new one. The Major was first on the list of requirements for any meeting most of the time, else Ed balked at participating. It made it difficult to plan for the structure of this session, not knowing if some complaint related to the Major was the reason Ed wanted to meet.
Ed planned to remain sitting cross-legged on his bed. It would put him eye-to-eye, slightly above equal height with Gansworth when he sat down next to him in the chair - for as long as he could stand to stay in this painful position. His leg and hips started hurting more than usual after all the commotion in the hallway, but his stump was aching mercilessly today, too, for no reason he could think of.
"Is that position going to be comfortable, Edward? Wouldn't you like lie back and relax? Perhaps you'd like to change."
Ed shook his head, shrugging. No, it wasn't going to be comfortable. It was actually kind of irritating when he got dressed for the day only to end up spending a fair share of the time sitting on his bed. But it wasn't going to tempt him to lounge around and not get dressed just to be comfortable. The Major gave him that option all the time until he finally told him once and for all to shut up and stop bringing it up. "These are the only clothes I have."
"No, I understand that. But the pants you wore before, the kind that you sometimes sleep in, they don't bind up and they're a lot more comfortable, are they not? I think it's more important that you're able to relax. We're not going anywhere. Right?"
"I'm wearing my day clothes. I know they're not as…look. It's not time for bed and I'm not sick. So I don't need to change, all right? You didn't come here in your pajamas."
"My apologies. I didn't realize you felt that way; but now I do, so let's move on."
"I don't have feelings about it, I just want to be dressed when it's daytime. It's normal, just like you, just like anybody else."
"Yes, I understand. I'd remind you, though, to pay attention to your body in a sympathetic way. It will often warn you of things through pain or discomfort that you wouldn't be aware of otherwise until serious problems arise. And you do have a tendency to ignore those messages."
"Yeah, yeah, I know. You told me before, you don't have to keep telling me that."
"I realize that you may dislike hearing it again but I don't see that the behavior has changed and it's very important that you cooperate. Even if you don't want to, Edward, you need to be very honest and up front when I ask for feedback. You're the only one who can express what's going on in terms of how you're feeling. Your physical issues are not going to go away if you ignore them. We need to work together to maximize your recovery."
"Enough, already, I get it! Geeze, I don't need a lecture every time something happens. I didn't do this, all right? It wasn't my fault." Ed gestured impatiently at the blotch of dark purple. Shit happened, every little twinge wasn't a dire warning and they were wasting time talking about it!
"Yes, I agree, it wasn't your fault, I apologize if I misspoke. I simply wanted to suggest that for the purpose of this session, being comfortable might be more important than appearances and the time of day. But if you feel strongly about it, it's fine, the choice is yours. Well, then, I suppose we can just go ahead, since you're ready. We haven't had a chance to explore your thoughts about the guided relation process. I'd like to start out with that, if I may."
"I wanna ask you a question first. What's the deal with my brother? He's okay, now, right? I mean not completely, but can't he leave here any time he wants to now?"
"Ah." Considering a couple of the incidents he'd heard about recently, it should be obvious to anyone that Al was still dealing with the same unpredictable, hair-trigger mood swings as he had been all along. His own clinical opinion certainly had not changed. So in answering the question, he hoped to discover what prompted Ed to ask. "Well, Alphonse has a few issues to work through but by and large he is doing well. I have not and would not suggest that he leave just yet. His relationship with you aside, he still has a need for everything our accommodations can offer him."
"Do you think he could survive, though? If he did leave?"
Was Ed worried that Al might be planning to leave without him? Gansworth considered whether to ask outright why he wanted to know, but he sensed that Ed was being roundabout for some reason, so he simply drew out the conversation while listening for clues.
"Do you? You're with him more than anyone. How well do you think he's doing?"
Ed was looking down and shook his head. "He's pretty good. Maybe not as good as I am but I think he'll get better. But I don't…I can't…I try to project it, in my head, how it would go. But I've been away from it. I might not be remembering everything he needs to be able to do, to be, you know…out there on his own. That's why I'm asking you."
"Well, as you mention, he'll get better. I can't envision any reason to rush his recovery. You seem very worried about his progress. Is that so?"
"I'm not worried, I just want to know how it is. Because I…" Ed stumbled between plausible excuses and lost them both. It was too soon to reveal his next goal. He had to approach Al first. Al was technically still free to come and go at will. If they decided to interfere with Al's freedom in some official capacity, they would have a far greater chance of thwarting his plan before Al could be convinced to go along with it. So instead he changed the subject completely. "I don't want to take any of those pills anymore. They make everything too hard. I barely made it to the library and back. It's those shitty pills, that's what makes it so hard."
"Help me understand you, Edward, I'm not sure what you're trying to address here. This is still about Alphonse?"
"No! Forget that. It's about me not being doped up anymore!"
Gansworth took a breath and plunged ahead, letting Ed lead them down this new path, since it was uncertain whether he would return to the first topic even if prompted.
"What is it about the medication that makes you think that it impairs your ability to make trips to the library?"
"It makes me too soft. It makes me feel all shaky, people might look at me and think that I'm scared or freaked out or something. And I'm not!"
"The medication reduces your anxiety. The symptoms you're describing will be worse as the medication is decreased. Not better. And you seem to be lively and energetic right now. The level of medication isn't a problem for you at the moment, is it? You were over-tired, perhaps."
"I'm telling you, I don't need it."
It was Gansworth's turn to do a flying change of lead, to head the session back in the direction he'd planned for.
"I'll consider it. Now, Edward, I'd like to hear how you felt about our experiment with guided relaxation."
As he began talking about it, the doctor's voice purposely slowed and took on some of that same hypnotic tonal quality. Ed shivered clear to his bowels in reaction to the sound.
"Why? I thought you said it worked. The Colonel got what he wanted, right?"
"Yes. That's correct. But that's not what I'm asking you. I'm asking how you felt, if you had any after-effects, or if you had any questions or concerns about it afterwards."
Ed had to gather his thoughts; he was successful in changing the subject but now he was totally unprepared for this line of conversation. Things had been kind of rough since that day; he kind of felt that the things he'd remembered were creeping around in his dreams to an annoying degree. He'd never had so many uncomfortable dreams and nightmares where his father was the central figure.
As if the man read his mind, Gansworth asked, "Does it have something to do with the nightmares you've been having lately?"
Ed grumbled; he didn't want to get into that at all. But someone must have ratted him out already, or he wouldn't have known about the dreams. The Major probably did it, in a misguided attempt to help. He remembered blubbering to the gargantuan caretaker while he was half-asleep on more than one occasion.
"I see. Can you tell me a little bit about it?"
"Just dreams; weird, crazy dreams. They don't even make sense."
"Humor me, Edward. Do you know that I rarely remember my dreams? So when I get to hear someone else's, I find it totally fascinating. Especially crazy dreams that make no sense, the kind that seem to come from nowhere. So please. And anyway, the stranger they are, the more interesting they are to tell, don't you think?" Gansworth told his bald-faced lie with a friendly, encouraging expression while trying to maintain his verbal tone in that slightly hypnotic range. Working with Ed had given him some of the most vivid, disturbing, unforgettable nightmares he'd had in his adult life. He could scarcely imagine what it would be like to experience one of Ed's firsthand.
"No, it's…they're not that interesting. I see…I've been seeing my fa…Hohenheim, he's been in a lot of them, that's all."
"Oh. So, it's the same dream, repeating over and over?"
"No. Well, some are. It could be anything. I mean, just…" Ed pawed at his hair and grimaced, trying to sort out the many twisted vignettes.
"Take your time. Is your father in all of…"
"Don't call him that!" Ed spat.
"But his is your father, Edward. I don't say that to imply that he fulfilled that role adequately in your upbringing, but just to emphasize the gravity of the impact of his behavior on your development."
"Fuck that, I don't even know what that means. He was just the useless old bastard that left our mother."
"What I mean is just that; the fact that you feel that instead of a father, all you had for a male parent was a "useless old bastard" that abandoned the family. That, in itself, is something that can have a powerful impact on a child's emotional development."
"I hate it when you do that. Don't give me that child psychology crap. I didn't let it bother me. He wanted to go, so good riddance! It's just that Mom couldn't take it. And that's the part that hurt us, but that's old news, it's got nothing to do with all of this now."
"Sorry. Let's get back on track, then. Just pick one or two of the dreams and give me an idea what they were about. Then we can move on."
"I've told you about a lot of my bad dreams already."
"Yes. I remember."
"So, all those dreams, yeah, see, I still have 'em. It's just that all of a sudden that son of a bitch is in all of them. Sometimes his face is on every person and every creature, every living thing in the dream, even though I know who they're really supposed to be. I hate it. But especially…" Ed was rubbing his face with both hands now, reluctantly getting a more vivid picture. "Especially when his face is on that homunculus. I smell something, and then I have this smell from my memory, way back, the odd smell he had, and it gets me all mixed up. He was always puffing a pipe, but there was this other, odd, something more that I remember…I don't know. I was little. I thought pipes all smelled bad like that until I got older. Anyhow, where was I going with this? Oh, yeah, Hohenhiem. In some of the dreams, see, there's nothing really going on and then I smell his nasty pipe. And I know it's him, right off. But then I can't quite get him in focus and then there's that other odor, that terrible stink those things have, and it's like oh shit, I know what it means, like, I really, really know what that means, and bam! It's still him but it's them, too, and his eyes are red and he has that huge, ugly grin. And then he starts doing those things to me, you know, and I can't get away and I can't make it stop. He never stops, it's just as bad, he's just like them." As he got further into his descriptions, Ed's hands were modeling his visions in the air and his eyes roamed as if he were watching the events.
Gansworth watched closely; he wanted information but it wouldn't help to trigger a flashback or send Ed into an uncooperative introverted state of mind.
"Edward, listen to me, I'm truly sorry. It seems that you're remembering your dreams much more clearly than you have in the past. Is that difficult for you? What you've described sounds very disturbing."
Ed was nodding even as he denied it. "Naw. Not that much. It's just a dream." He actually preferred those terrifying, surreal nightmares to the realistic dreams filled with the old man's heartless attitude and cold disdain.
"I'd like to hear more. For instance, are you experiencing any other dreams, good or bad, that you haven't told me about before? Anything you can recall?" Gansworth urged, still carefully fishing for the dreams Armstrong was concerned about.
"Just…there's some nights I have…" Ed resisted the path he was placed on here. If he brought up his childhood, the doctor always made such an issue of it. But it was true that the dreams were provoking and he knew he'd spilled some of it to the Major. So to conceal it would only make it seem more significant, and it wasn't. It was just an annoying fact of life. "Damn it. I started dreaming about being little and stuff. It's not a nightmare, it's just kind of like a memory."
"Is your father in these, too?"
"What are they about? What happens in them?"
"Nothing! Nothing happens. It's just like, remembering when I was little, when Hohenheim was still hanging around."
"Something must happen in the dream. Do the two of you interact? Is anyone else in them?"
Ed was rubbing his face again. Gansworth was trying to get a better feel for the times Ed exhibited that behavior. It didn't seem to be frustration. More like discomfort, when he was struggling internally to find a response.
Maybe it was a symbolic way of hiding for a moment while he regrouped.
"We talk, it's nothing big. I guess it's the idea that he's going to leave and cause all this shit no matter what I do that's so…I don't know…"
"I can certainly understand why you find it upsetting. Do you feel like your father should take some responsibility for the difficulties you've experienced since he left?"
"He can kiss my ass. He doesn't need to do anything for me, or for Al. And he needs to get the hell out of my dreams."
"Do you remember if he ever punished you, Edward?"
"When I was little?" He realized he'd asked a dumb question as soon as it left his mouth. Of course, when he was little. When else were they even around one another?
"Do you recall if you felt frightened? How did he punish you, what was his method?"
"Is this what that relaxation thing does? Makes you remember all of the shit you shouldn't have to?"
"You tell me, Edward. Is that what has happened?"
"Ever since that day, I've got all this garbage floating around in my head. I keep remembering all this stuff from when I was a kid. It's not like I ever forgot it, but I haven't had any reason to think about it much, either. And now I keep dreaming about it almost every night. It's super annoying."
"I wouldn't say there's no reason to think about it. As a matter of fact, thinking and talking about it could be very positive so long as we take the time to work through those memories together. Just tell me this. What is it that he says to you that you find most disturbing? What bothers you the most?"
Ed blushed, because he knew the answer immediately, but he was thoroughly ashamed to say it out loud. There was a great deal of truth in the old man's stinging words. He had been useless. He was a disappointment. But if he were to admit it, out loud, to Gansworth, he'd no longer be able to pretend that his father's low opinion of him didn't matter, or that it wasn't the truth. And he still needed that crutch of self-deceit to get by. There was no way he could toss it aside so easily.
"I don't remember. I'm not interested in that anyway. I need to focus on my life right here, right now. And you need to quit screwing around and get Al fixed up so he doesn't have to be stuck here forever."
Back to Al again. So was this Ed's true focus? So was it not the case that he feared Al would leave, but he instead worried that Al was not going to improve enough to leave?
"Let me assure you, Edward. I don't envision Alphonse being stuck here forever. Not at all. He is doing well. He realizes that he still has some challenges ahead of him. It's very wise of him to be patient and stay in the supportive environment that the Colonel has created here for the two of you. He's taking his time and working on his recovery, and I'm quite pleased that he has no plans to leave us anytime soon. When he is ready to leave, we'll provide assistance with his return to the mainstream if he has difficulty. Our door won't suddenly shut on either one of you, once you're well enough to be released. Does that ease some of your concerns?"
That was a sort of an answer. Probably the closest thing he would get to one. So Al was better, he was going to do all right once he left, and even if he had problems, he could come back for help. It sounded like the doctor was making excuses to cover up the fact that Al was just staying so they could be together, as he strongly suspected.
Ed exhaled noisily in relief, rubbing his face again. Another vital element of his plan was secured. This was a big one, and there was just one more monumental maneuver left to clear the way: convincing Al it would be best if he left.
He looked up into Gansworth's expectant eyes, wondering. Would he be of any use for this? Would he think the idea of Al leaving, ostensibly temporarily, was a good one if Ed supported it?
No, probably not, he decided. Maybe their conversation would reveal some ideas about the right angle to use to convince Al, but he doubted it.
"Edward," Gansworth prompted a fourth time, patiently watching and waiting. Ed was very distracted and his body language was jerky and erratic. These various dreams and nightmares surely had to be wearing on him; the Major reported that he had them nightly, often two or three mild episodes before one was severe enough to jolt him awake, or cause enough disturbance that he was awakened by staff to bring him out of it.
"Did…did you say something?" Ed fumbled for his water, trying to get his bearings.
"Yes, I just wanted to make sure that you were ready to move on with our little chat here. Are you feeling all right? Is there something else you'd like to talk about? You know that I'm here to listen, and I'll help as best I can. Remember, you can tell me anything, anything at all."
"Sure, but could you knock that off? Don't talk so slow and make that voice."
"Sorry. I was just trying to keep things relaxed. It bothers you, then? Is that because of the session in the Colonel's office?"
"I'm still not sure what happened. It's not a big deal. But no one will really tell me. What all did I say? What did he want to know?"
"We stayed in the parameters I gave you beforehand. We were able to get your description of the events leading up to your abduction. You handled it well."
"So what did that have to do with my old man?"
"Well. You got a bit stuck at one point, and we were essentially finished. So I regressed you, to what should have been a simpler, more secure time, and it appears that you remembered a time when you were significantly stressed. I apologize if that has caused you so much discomfort. I made an incorrect assumption, and I'm very sorry."
"I think it's weird that I actually remember other things from that one day now."
"You mean from the day of the abduction?"
"Yeah. If someone asked me how it happened, I'd just know, without having to do all that relaxation jazz. But it doesn't, like, upset me a whole bunch to think about it. I don't keep dwelling on it. It's not nice but I can deal. The stupid part is that I can't get my head around the things I remembered from home."
"Do you feel like there's some unfinished business there?"
"Maybe that's it. The details the Colonel wanted to know about being captured…well, I wish I'd handled it better, but I was making decisions snap-snap, you know, things happened fast and I didn't understand what was happening until later. I had no clue what we were up against. But the other stuff from home is more like…eh. Yeah. Maybe it is unfinished business. I guess that's pretty accurate." It was okay, because even though he knew it was unfinished, he was on the verge of resolving his karma debts. Not that he could share that information with the doctor. And besides, the discomfort pushed him, shored up his resolve. It felt awful but it had a purpose.
"I'd like to know more."
"Later, all right?"
"Maybe we can try another relaxation session and see if…"
"No! No way. No more of that shit! Hey, aren't we done yet?"
"Careful there!" Gansworth caught his forearm to keep him from falling; his sudden attempt to unfold and stand all at once found his body stiff and achingly disobedient.
"I'm not doin' that again!"
"Of course not, if you don't want to, it's all right. We won't try the relaxation techniques again until you're ready. Sit back down, please."
"I don't have anything else to talk about." Ed fell back to sit heavily, more a result of pain and unsteadiness than cooperation.
"Thank you. It's better if we sit and behave calmly." He reached out and took Ed's hand, examining the bruising on his wrist, waiting for him to relax his arm before turning it over to see the extent of the damage. "Let me have a closer look at you. The wrist, your cheek…any other bruises or injuries you're aware of?"
With a sideways glance at Armstrong, Ed reluctantly lifted his shirt, because there was no point in trying to hide it if the guy was set on giving him an examination. The move revealed a huge dark bruise over his left ribcage.
"I'm assuming that this is from the same incident as the other bruises, but can I ask how you got this injury?" Gansworth's brow knit in concern; Ed's reply confirmed what his body language suggested.
"It all happened when the Major picked me up."
"You're talking about the incident yesterday, when they called for medical aid? I'm sorry, I was in the middle of a procedure, or I would have come."
Ed nodded silently. The Major was right there, looking guilty and full of regret, and he hated to rat him out. He felt like he'd been manhandled unnecessarily, but he didn't hold it against them, either. Everybody made mistakes. He wasn't sure if he wanted to say more.
"Exactly how did this happen?"
Ed shook his head, frowning.
"Major, can you join us for a minute?"
Armstrong approached and saw the bruising on his torso for the first time; Ed had managed to conceal it during his shower. Having heard Ed's statement, he blushed at the evidence. He knew he'd miscalculated the force needed to restrain Edward when he saw the other bruises; but this was much worse than he realized.
"I think it was an accident!" Ed protested, feeling horrible once he saw the look on the huge alchemist's face. "They already apologized."
"I'm sure that it was. But we need to get everything out in the open so it doesn't happen again."
"I'm truly sorry, Edward. I knew we weren't careful enough but I didn't realize it was this severe." Armstrong was truly shocked. In his entire career, this had to be his worst error in use of force, ever. And it was without anger, or any ill will toward his victim. He'd had no sense that he'd made such an egregious mistake at the time.
The doctor was asking about the excess force but still, no one expected an explanation as to why they turned on him like that to begin with? It occurred to Ed that it was such an easy assumption that he'd done some crazy damned thing that they didn't even have to make an excuse for taking him down like a common criminal. This time, there was no provocation on his part at all.
"Why do you think I couldn't breathe?" Ed snapped back, suddenly annoyed. "I wasn't doing anything, I was just walking, and you go and pick me up and throw me over your shoulder. I'm all bent over, you got your big, stupid shoulder jammed into me. And Havoc pulls on my arms, so like, I can't do anything, I was suffocating and neither one of you would let go."
"But you never said anything. You never complained…"
"I couldn't! I couldn't talk, or I would have! No, you guys just slam me around like I've gone psycho when there wasn't anything wrong with me! It felt like I was gonna die before you stopped! There I am dying and it took forever before you would help me! It's ridiculous, because I'm not crazy, you gotta stop treating me like I'm crazy before you kill me, damn it!"
"Edward, I feel awful, I'm very, very sorry. I didn't realize. You must know I never intended to hurt you."
"This is good, this is good information, these gentlemen need your feedback when you see that there's a problem," Gansworth said. The Major looked positively horrified that he'd caused Ed such trauma, assuming that Ed's rant was accurate.
"It doesn't matter. I'll tell you what matters. Everybody needs to stop acting like I'm crazy. Give me some credit. I'm okay now, so I'll forgive you if you'll just stop it. And admit it. Admit that I didn't do anything wrong and tell me why you did all that shit!"
"Well, you're certainly much better and we'll make sure that everyone is more cautious in these situations," Gansworth said. Ed was getting agitated, his body language was explosive, and they still hadn't gotten to the truth of what happened. Maybe it would be best to pull the Major and Havoc aside and make sure they filed detailed incident reports. Going any further here might complicate things.
"No, that's not good enough! Nobody…nobody needs to be cautious!" Ed snapped back. "Just stop treating me like I'm crazy! I was sick but I'm fine now! Enough of this bullshit!"
"I'm sorry, Edward. I didn't mean to upset you. Please. We're not done yet, are we?"
Ed growled in frustration, waving away the offered hand as he bounced off the bed and stormed unsteadily into the bathroom.
He clutched the edge of the sink and turned his head away from the mirror. Damn it, ever since he got so upset dressing in front of the mirror in the room, all mirrors seemed to be looking right at him, challenging him to face them. They were almost alive, each surface of a deep, dangerous, icy cold reservoir teeming with monsters he only vaguely remembered
Well, if that wasn't a crazy thought, he didn't know what one was. Shit. It raised his hackles when he heard the Major shuffling in the doorway, reminding him that they still didn't even let him pee alone.
"Are you all right, Edward?" Armstrong asked tentatively; if Ed were wary of him now, it would be more than justified.
"I would be," he sighed, "if people would get off my ass."
"Please. I may be speaking out of turn…but we want the very same thing you do. Nothing would delight me more than to see you fully recovered. I want that for you with all my heart and soul."
"So clue me in, Major. What do I have to do to convince you? What makes you so sure I'm still…still…"
"Major. Edward. Please." Gansworth stepped past the Major and stood between them. "If you have business in the restroom, you need to attend to it and return to our session. Major, I appreciate that you may want to discuss some things, but my time here is limited, and I need to stay on track with my patient."
Silence greeted his intervention. The Major nodded, but Ed didn't move.
"Edward. Are you feeling ill?" Gansworth moved closer to him, cautiously. "If not, I need you to come back out with me. You can use the facility first if you need to."
"When I talk, no one listens. But you want more talk. You just can't get enough. You think it solves everything. And I talk and I talk and I talk, and nothing comes from it. Nothing."
Gansworth started to say something to try and soothe him, but he was cut off.
"And you give me all this crap about being upset. That doesn't make me crazy. Tell me you don't ever get upset. I tell you what. How would you like it if you got jumped on and thrown around and doped up every time something upset you? Wouldn't you look crazy to other people?"
The doctor sighed. Ed was getting something off of his chest that was weighing heavily on him, it was clear. This was touchy, delicate. Well, was he sane, ready for a clean bill of mental health? Of course not, no way, not even close in the foreseeable future. He was rationalizing his behavior, deluding himself, fighting to find normal ground. He was still placing the blame on his caretakers for his ongoing issues; it made for a convenient excuse, and allowed him to advance the belief that he was well and merely misunderstood. But the schism between that belief and reality was creating a lot of friction, and it wasn't consistent with Ed's level of delusion to expect him to be able to step back and try to see things as they truly were.
How to deal with this? Ed was becoming thorny, difficult, rebellious…if he became too hard to control, decisions would have to be made and the Colonel would have to exert his power as guardian before things got out of hand.
"And I wasn't even upset. I was just walking. Shit!"
The young man's eyes looked fairly clear. He was in the moment, responsive and listening to the degree he was capable of. As long as he didn't get any worse, the situation was manageable. His handlers needed to be as cautious and vigilant as possible. Ed came through remarkably well this time but the mistakes that occurred yesterday could not be allowed to happen again, ever. Perhaps the Colonel should consider some token disciplinary action to drive home the point. He'd have to seriously consider first whether that was the right tactic to use, and try to project what the effect might be on the group dynamic. Maybe it was time to start rotating Havoc and Armstrong out of this very trying detail more often.
Ed caught himself, realization dawning as Gansworth's eyes met his with that invasive, analytical stare. He was doing it again, letting things rile him up. He had to stop fighting them. He had to be smarter than that. The bruises were a visible warning of things to come if he resisted further. Every time he tried to force them to recognize his improvement, they focused on his shortcomings. Only by acquiescing and cooperating did he make headway and bring them to his side.
If another bad report went to Mustang over this…he had to think fast, turn this around, make it come out in his favor.
"Never mind. It's all right." Ed moved to the urinal and did his business, hating the feeling of eyes on his back. "Don't get excited." He shook off, zipped up, moved to the sink to wash his hands. Just like normal people. Just like anybody else. He even pretended to look in the mirror, facing it without letting his eyes take in the uncomfortable image as he washed his hands, paying careful attention to wiping the ugly, flimsy automail dry afterward.
"You'll join me, then?" Gansworth asked quietly.
"Sure. I didn't come in here to hide. I just had to pee." Lies. He went in the restroom only because he had to go somewhere, and they might have tackled him if he went for the door.
"Of course. My apologies."
Ed turned the idea of being tackled for leaving the room over and over in his mind. They would, he was pretty sure. Because they thought he would hurt himself or something. He wasn't really sure why they would do it, or why he knew they would try. Things here really did puzzle him sometimes. He wanted to ask but in light of his current position, he didn't want to bring it up. It was true that his mind wasn't completely up to speed. He would have figured all of this out in a heartbeat otherwise.
A little slower didn't mean sick or disabled, though. He'd show them. He almost had them seeing things his way before, he'd just have to convince them again.
"Let' s go ahead and get your examination out of the way. Strip down to your underwear for me, Edward. Are there any other injuries you're aware of?" Gansworth slipped on his white coat again, getting his tools at hand.
"What? No, come on. I showed you everything. Nothing's bothering me, I'm fine. Don't you believe me?"
"When I first arrived I asked you how your face was injured and you said you didn't know. And that wasn't true, was it?"
Ed was about to protest that he didn't want to say anything to stir up trouble for Havoc and the Major, but then, explaining why he didn't tell the truth wasn't an argument that would help anyone believe him now. He shrugged and shook his head, then shucked off his pants and shirt in what he hoped was a nonchalant, confident, normal manner.
Because it wouldn't do to let Gansworth know that no matter how gently and carefully he did any examination or procedure, the first reaction nearly every time was still a belly full of icy dread and an almost uncontrollable urge to flee or ball up and hide. He hadn't given in to acting on those deep fears in a while, so he was pretty sure that his physician thought he had gotten over it. It helped a lot that he trusted that thin, serious face, and that his touch was always as careful and gentle as the procedure would allow. In fact, sometimes, once a routine exam was well underway, he found that he could relax a little and just take in the experience without much distress at all. The prospect was usually the hardest part – realizing that he had to force himself to submit to whatever was about to happen.
He never managed to hide the difficulty he had with the first touch once he was positioned and ready. Gansworth fully expected the severe flinch of avoidance despite his reassurances and slow approach.
"Thank you, Edward, that's right, slide up there and try to relax. I'm just going to start by taking your pulse…easy, that's fine, that didn't hurt you, I hope? Good. Now let's get your blood pressure. Just let me support the weight of your arm. We'll need just a minute of quiet here. Unclench your fist for me."
"The relaxation session didn't bother me. I handled it."
"That's good. Arms up, straight out from your sides."
"Some of my dreams are a little different now, that's all. It's not a problem."
"I see. Does this…sorry. How much does that hurt? One to ten?
"Four. I'm getting better every day now. My workouts are longer now. Ask…ask…ask the Major."
"I'm aware. Arms down. You're starting to tremble, Edward. Are you all right?"
"It's cold! It's so…don't. I want my clothes back."
"This won't take long, I promise. The pain level here is four. You're sure that's all it is?"
"I…yeah. Just cold. My clothes. I need my clothes back."
"Here, wrap up in this and I'll work around it." Gansworth draped the old coat around Ed's shoulders, observing the poorly-concealed desperation when he clutched it to his chest, pulling it tightly closed, crushing his chin into it.
"Thanks," Ed whispered, closing his eyes. There was a long pause before he uttered "That's better."
This session was getting beyond his capabilities. It must have gone on for hours and hours already, he was exhausted, and there was no sign that they were going to go away and let him recover any time soon. Fatigue mudded up his brain and the only real concept he managed to cling to was that his brother would be all right if he left this place. Everything else just sort of dissolved into an untenable mass of concerns too complicated and voluminous to look at any more. He knew he was discussing something specific just moments ago and he had no idea whatsoever how to get back to that place in his head and try to figure out what it was they were saying. Lucidity was shutting down so fast and so far that he was afraid to concentrate on anything else except remembering what he learned about Al. If he forgot that and had to ask again, they'd definitely realize he was asking for a reason.
"You're covered up now. Take a moment and see if it helps to get warmer. I'll wait."
Ed's trying so hard that it's difficult to watch. Is he denying his distress as a form of avoidance, presenting a brave front to ward off another attempt at hypnosis? And is that avoidance true self-preservation? Can he truly not bear to go into another session, or would another session advance him closer to understanding and he fears the next stage of improvement enough to desperately attempt to avoid it? He obviously pushed his ability to appear'normal' to the very limit, and he's gone past that now, nearly unresponsive. What is the right approach overall?What path should I take next in his treatment?
Ed's hand abandoned the warmth and protection of the blue coat and sought Gansworth's starched white sleeve, unsurelyat first. Once he had it, he held tight, seizing both the garment and the doctor's breath.
He still trusts me. His fate is in my hands, and I have made mistakes he is fully aware of; we all have. Yet here is irrefutable evidence that on the most basic, vulnerable level, his uncensored reaction is still one of trust.
He closed his hand over Ed's unsteady one in reassurance, warming it protectively to encourage this impulse to seek his support. It was uncertain if the gesture would be accepted. But under his touch, he felt the tension slowly ease. Ed's grip grew a bit softer; he still clung to the sleeve possessively and had taken to staring at the hand covering his, drawn to it enough to inch further out into the moment.
Patiently taking in the subtleties of their interaction, Gansworth conceded that the full exam he had planned for today was probably too much for Ed at this point; the amber eyes fluttered shut, confirming that he was not going to get a second wind.
He'd arrange to come back after lights out to meet with Armstrong and Havoc individually; it would be much easier to have the Major slip Ed a stiff dose of sleep agent and have a closer look at him then.
Awake but immobile, Ed repeated the revelation about Al in his head and struggled to stay awake, not for the doctor's sake, but for fear of losing that hard-won information.
The weight of his fatigue snipped the thin threads and sent him into the retreat of dreamless semi-consciousness.
Through the dim glass, the light haloed the figures sleeping in their beds, casting shadows as the Major moved between them, checking, assuring that they were indeed safely tucked away for the night.
"Seems like, lately, this is the best part of the day," Havoc said mildly, watching from his seat in the darkened observation room. Armstrong's glance at the mirror before returning to his usual spot told them that he was alert to their unseen presence.
"You say it's usually early on in his sleep pattern when it starts."
"Once he's out, it's usually within an hour. He moves around quite a bit, it'll be easy to see it from here. But you did give him more medication than usual and then there was the exam and all. So I don't know if he'll even have one tonight."
"How would you say the Major is holding up?" Gansworth asked.
"He's taking good care of them, and I know that's important to him. I don't think it bothers him, except when he feels he's let them down in some way."
"Do you notice any signs of stress, anything unusual? Lieutenant, were there elements of a fight or disagreement when Edward was injured?"
"No, nothing like that. Look, I'm as much to blame as he is, maybe more. I was putting a lot of pressure on his wrists and I underestimated how fragile he is. I should have let the Major handle him alone and just backstopped him if Ed got loose. It was a hell of a bad mistake on both of our parts, I feel terrible about it, but it really was just a mistake."
"A mistake in…"
"How much force to use to restrain him. He's so set on getting out, acting normal. But I'm not even convinced that he's convinced."
"So it's not true that he was restrained arbitrarily. Something happened?"
"We were just walking him between us and it seemed like we'd make it back to the room without a problem. But then he lost it and started fighting and yelling. He managed to get loose; that's where the real problem started. I stepped it up to make sure we had really had him and the Major did, too. I must have overestimated his resistance."
"And you saw no provocation that started the yelling and fighting."
"No. But his composure was shot at that point. We were hustling to try and get him back before he fell apart. We almost made it, damn it. Almost."
"What's your opinion, Lieutenant? Do you feel that the measures we've taken are still adequate? Or does Edward need more controls?"
"That's a tough one. Most of the time he does pretty well. But the more he tells himself that there's nothing wrong with him, the harder it is to keep him contained. I know you want us to let him do what he thinks he can do and then just catch him when he falls. And he does all right sometimes. But there are times when people get hurt, like yesterday. So far, not severely, but some of that is luck."
"The reports are showing fairly regular episodes of hallucination and flashbacks. Somewhat less frequently than before, though, wouldn't you say?"
"Not as many, but he still has some kind of event at least once a day."
"That concerns me. Having daily events should give him some inkling that he's not fully recovered. Does he not remember any of these now? He denies that he's having those issues when I try to discuss it with him."
"He…he doesn't want to talk about it afterward most of the time. But I wouldn't say it's because he's unaware. He actually seems more embarrassed. More disturbed by it than he was before. But than he pushes on and makes some excuse. He just tries twice as hard to make it seem like nothing happened."
"Hm. I have a number of theories about what's going on here, and it's important to figure out what his mental status truly is before we make any adjustments to his care. I think that the most likely explanations are that he's either putting up a front to hide the fact that he's still struggling with his aberrant impulses, or that he so desperately wants to be normal that he's rationalizing away the severity of these episodes. Either way, on some level, he would be aware that this isn't normal in any classic sense. It is also possible that he refuses to consciously acknowledge these events at all because they're inconsistent with a self-made reality of normalcy that he's enveloped in. And there, it's a matter of whether this is a voluntary or involuntary step out of true reality. What do you think is most likely from your observations, Lieutenant Havoc?"
"That he…wait…I'm not sure what you mean, exactly. I'd just say that I see him trying, way beyond what's reasonable, to get somebody to agree that he's not crazy even when he suffers for it. He brings it up over and over. Even right after some pretty outrageous stuff. Why he does it, I don't know one hundred percent. We've all noticed that he's getting really sensitive and embarrassed about his appearance, physical and otherwise. I think it's painful for him to think that people see him as disabled in any way. He'd rather hide all his issues and suffer with them in silence than get help if it means he has to be exposed. He's always been really touchy about showing any weakness; even the idea of people assuming he's not strong because he's so small sets him off big time. That's an issue he's had from the first day I met him."
"Yes. Some of it could be a manifestation of the personality he had before."
Havoc's expression changed, and Gansworth gesture to him with an upturned chin, encouraging him to put his reaction into words.
"Before. The way you say that…you make it sound like he won't have that personality again."
"I don't want to upset you unduly, but it's my professional opinion that it's highly unlikely that he'll come out of this with the same attitudes and behaviors that characterized him prior to the incident. I know that Alphonse tries to guide him as if he were somehow destined to return to normal. And maybe that kind of modeling will help him to somewhat resemble the person he was before. There is an element of expectation creating results. But my goal is to return him to viable mental health and I can't be too rigid in how I define success. He'll still be Edward, regardless, and any attempt to shape him to fit the old mold would just be adding pressure that could interfere with the process."
"I guess I should just be grateful that we still manage to connect. He's hurting and he's really out there sometimes, but to me, that kid is still Ed."
"And that's good to hear. Just be aware that we're still a long way from his ultimate recovery, and somewhere along the way, as he continues to undergo changes, some of them might interfere with that connection. Perhaps temporarily, perhaps permanently. There's no way to predict."
Havoc chuckled humorlessly, shaking his head. "And I thought your job was to make people feel better."
"That's not so much inaccurate as oversimplified. I can't change the world, Lieutenant, or rest assured, I would. All I can do is guide people to the solutions I think will serve them best, and warn them of unpleasant things to prepare them for surviving the blow. I apologize if I've added to your burden. It's never my intent to do so."
"So, what's the plan, then?"
"Let me ask. How has his leg been?"
"Oh." Havoc hated the subject. It was unavoidable and necessary, but almost unbearable to contemplate once he became aware of it. "He's still having problems off and on, but it doesn't slow him down much. He never complains."
"Have you observed any changes, particularly when he first tries to move around after a rest?"
"He's a little stiffer, more likely to become unbalanced, but once he starts moving around he's okay."
"Do you think we're managing his pain sufficiently or is he hiding it again?"
"He definitely has some sharp pains that he can't hide when he first gets up in the morning. Once he moves around and has his meds he seems okay."
"All right. I'll see what the Major has to say during his interview."
"You're thinking of doing the operation now? Is that it? I know it would take him out of his cabin fever mode for a while, but, man…it's going to be really hard on him."
"My thought is that no matter when it's done, it will be a very difficult experience for him, and his recovery time will be significant. I'm not casually proposing to do it now just because it's hard dealing with him on a daily basis. But considering that he needs some sort of intervention, I have to take everything, including timing, into consideration. With most the procedures he still needs, and there are several, I have a great deal of latitude as to when I schedule them, and I've delayed them accordingly. But if the next x-ray shows what I believe it will, this can't wait for long."
"Just how much does he need to have done? I thought I heard you say that you might be able to help him with just some minor adjustments."
"I did my best, and there was some hope; but sadly it does appear that his bones didn't align properly. The question now is whether the rods are still shifting. If I confirm the shift is worsening, it's far better to go in and take care of it right away. If the misalignment puts any more pressure on his hip socket and stresses the pelvis, there's no limit to how many other problems it can cause."
"Sounds even worse than I thought."
"It's major surgery. He'll be hospitalized for quite a while, there's no avoiding it. With his physical challenges, anything less that intensive care and sterile isolation is out of the question. Recovery and rehabilitation will take quite some time. No matter when the procedure is done, this will be an ordeal for him."
"And for Al." Havoc shook his head. He sure wouldn't want to have to go through an operation like that; he hated hospitals himself. And Al would be faced with rooming in at the hospital or being separated from his brother again.
"Yes. I'm afraid they'll have to be separated again for a while. I'll need to keep Edward in a very calm and completely controlled emotional environment in those first delicate weeks. I'm hoping that Ms. Rockbell can schedule her return accordingly. She can keep Alphonse company and see him through this difficult time; she indicated that she'd be willing to do so."
"She knows?" He didn't know why he asked such a stupid question. She probably understood Ed's medical issues far more intricately than he and the Major did.
"Yes, of course. Her work on his automail is integrated with the condition of his natural body in general, and his orthopedics in particular . The lighter automail had the potential to help the situation – the greater weight of his original set was a big part of the problem. It appears that it was too late to reverse the damage by the time we addressed the issue. I'm sorry to burden you with this, I know you've been worried, no one likes to think of how it will be for him to go through this. I expect him to be extremely upset. Once he's informed that he's having surgery, it will probably be best if we revert to heavy sedation all the way through until he's ambulatory again. So we need to be cautious what we say to him, and he should have no warning about this whatsoever until I'm ready to admit him. That's an order, not a request. And I'm afraid it would be too much to burden Alphonse with something this serious and expect him to keep it a secret. So not a word to him, either. The situation is delicate, to say the least."
"When will you know exactly what has to be done, then?"
"As soon as they repair the orthopedic imaging machine; probably at the end of next week. We do have an older, basic x-ray unit in the ER but I need the best image I can get in order to make my determinations. And if he needs the procedure done stat, I hope to have it scheduled as soon as possible after I make my assessment."
"I appreciate you telling me. I'd rather know than be left in the dark. So until then, should we be watching him for anything specific?"
"Just make sure he doesn't stress his body too much. I don't really expect anything to happen to the leg itself, it's not like it's ready to fall apart. It's a shame to have to re-break it; considering that he had such extensive comminuted fracturing, the bone has filled in nicely. The biggest risk is to the hip joint and that's where most of his pain originates. Try to keep him from overextending it, or making sudden changes of direction, and no high kicks or lunges when he's working out. I honestly don't think that there's anything that can prepare him emotionally. Just continue to be supportive and take any and every opportunity to shore up his trust. Thankfully, he understands that we have his best interest at heart."
"We can do round-the-clock TOD's if you think it'll help."
"Lieutenant…that's an admirable offer. But I have to tell you, if it wasn't for the timing of this procedure, I'd be inclined to have the two of you start tapering off the amount of time you're committed to here."
"Because of the incident."
"Not just that, although I hate to trivialize the tremendous stress and responsibility you gentleman have been subjected to. There is the matter of long-term planning. By the time Edward's mental status is such that he can be trusted on his own recognizance – and in light of the very real possibility that such a time may never come – it has to be apparent to you that this responsibility will have to be passed on to someone else at some point. This isn't a career case for either of you."
"Whoa. Career case? That's kind of harsh. Colonel Mustang gave us this assignment and I don't think he's got the same take on this as you do. We've never had any indication that he plans to pull us off this detail before they're well enough to handle it."
"The Colonel relies on my professional advice. This isn't personal, it isn't at all my intention to offend you; but the reality is, you and the Major have reached a point where your entire existence is centered on taking care of Edward and Alphonse. The hours are absurd; between the lack of scheduled personal time and call-backs when you do manage to get away, you're here all the time. It's not healthy. I think the incident yesterday was a warning. You've lost all objectivity, both of you. And in turn, this will become problematic for those boys. You can fight to make sure you're always there for them, but it can't possibly go on forever. You know that. And the longer you lead them to believe that your constant presence is going to be a given, the more they come to expect it, and the harder it will be to make changes in reducing that commitment without causing them distress."
"What…what do you expect me to say? I'm not going to ask for reassignment. I don't feel like I need it. If change is going to hurt them, I don't see why you have to jump in and do it now. Seems to me that even if they get more attached with time, they're getting better during that time, too, and they should be able to handle it better when they need us less. See, no matter what happens, the important thing is that they have each other. We're just the collateral support."
"That's fine, you have your opinions, and I want to hear how you feel. This is all very stressful. But don't get confused about my purpose, or rather, purposes, when we have our meetings. I will hear you out and provide you with the opportunity to engage in therapeutic exchanges; as a soldier, your mental health is part of my purview. And I need your detailed reporting as their caretaker for so long as you're assigned here. But I won't entertain any notion that you're qualified to tell me how to do my job. I'll take your feedback into consideration but you have no rank to pull here. I say this, not to be hard-nosed, but to make you aware of your position. Misunderstandings have been getting out of hand lately and I'd like to nip this one in the bud."
Havoc frowned and nodded. It didn't seem like a good idea to say anything more. Mustang wanted him to bestay here, and the Major, too – he was certain of it. This was not right, not at all. His best bet was to talk to the Colonel about it directly. Gansworth was a good guy but he was wicked stubborn sometimes, and this looked like one of those times.
"Did you have anything else you'd like to say, on this subject, or any other?" Gansworth asked, fully aware that Havoc appeared to be clamming up. It was time to bring this to a close.
"Then thank you, Lieutenant, you are dismissed. Please send in the Major."
The door fell shut and Gansworth watched in the dim light as the two men met, exchanging hurried words before the Major in turn left the boys in Havoc's care. It looked like they were whispering. The microphone was off in the room before; was Havoc thinking that he would turn it on to spy on them? That was a bit disappointing, but not unexpected, he supposed, after being so direct in criticizing them over Edward's injuries and proposing to pull them back off their assignments. He wasn't their enemy but it probably felt like it to them.
The Major's massive silhouette filled the doorway and he suppressed a sigh. Here we go again.
"You wanted to see me, Doctor," Armstrong said. It was always surprising, the way he was able to make such a soft, hushed tone of voice.
Gansworth held up the Major's report and gestured to the chair.
"I read your report. We seem to have a problem, here, Major Armstrong."
Alex sat with no small amount of discomfort, still preparing himself mentally for the 'load of complete bullshit' Havoc just warned him about.
"I feel strongly that if we combine the evidence from the quarry with the circumstances, we have an answer, Lieutenant. Not the one we were hoping for. But still. I can't simply pretend we're clueless. The other men are waiting for the announcement. And there's the matter of his family…"
"But that's just it. The evidence is circumstantial at best. Colonel, I'd say that's a strong argument for waiting right there. The longer he's missing, the more apparent it will be whether our conclusion is correct. We should wait a reasonable length of time. And who knows – perhaps we'll turn up some evidence to the contrary."
"I'm not really concerned about looking foolish. There's nothing I'd enjoy more than finding out I'm wrong in declaring him dead. I want to be timely and not draw this out, out of respect for his family, but you're right, making a premature announcement that might be wrong is just as bad if not worse. I'll wait on any official action, as you suggest. Just be sure to remind the bean counters that he's MIA, not AWOL. I want nothing on his record to suggest that he did anything that was less than honorable. If there's one thing I'm sure of, it's that he didn't just run off on his own. I don't want anyone thinking of him as a deserter just because we haven't found his body. Have Vickers report to my office tomorrow, first thing. I'll give him my determination, unofficially. From a tactical standpoint, I want every soul on this base to regard this as an abduction and assassination. Every one of them needs to be on their guard."
"There's still something strange about that area of town where his gun was found. Those two men. I've never laid eyes on either one of them before. And I would definitely remember them, they would stand out anywhere. Not just because the one was so obese. The other man had the same eye color as Edward. That's not something you see every day."
"You don't think it was his father, do you?" Mustang asked suddenly.
"No, no, he was far too young. He appeared to be in his early twenties, maybe even younger. The other guy looked older, but it's hard to tell. And that one looked nothing like Edward at all."
"Early twenties. That would make him too old, then, to be some half-brother, even if his father was sowing wild oats right after he abandoned his family."
"There was Hayate's reaction, too."
"But none of the others saw them."
"The younger guy…"
"Let's make this easy. Call him...Amber. For the eye color. And the other one is Stout. For obvious reasons."
"Okay. From the direction Amber came from, he should have passed right by Fuery. But he never got a visual. When they left, they went in the opposite direction from everyone. Breda spent some time going up and down the area afterward. I thought about taking Hayate to try and track them but that would pretty much be the end of my cover as a shopper, and I was hoping that they might come to the market eventually."
"Gut reaction, Lieutenant. Were these people?"
"If they were people, my gut told me there was something very wrong about them. I think it's very possible that they're somehow involved in all this. They didn't look like monsters or extraordinary human-like beings. But they definitely did not feel right."
"This is the closest we've come to an encounter since the fifth lab was destroyed. All the remains we saw from there could never have passed as a normal human. But Ed was certain that the homunculus that lead him to capture looked like a person, and he said it had the ability to look like other people. So maybe that's what he believes, but it's not necessarily true. I had a hunch, but now I'm convinced that there must be a conspiracy. They may have human conspirators to use as their face among us. And that might be what you saw today."
"That makes sense. More sense than some creature that can look like any person they want at will."
"Breda's research still isn't conclusive. The more I find out, the more I realize that there's so much we don't know."
A muffled clatter caught their attention.
Hawkeye slipped to the door and opened it a crack, one hand on her sidearm. With a calm nod, she pulled the door open further.
"Sorry," Fuery smiled in embarrassment, coming around her desk to retrieve the stapler he'd knocked to the floor.
"All clear, Lieutenant. No one's even crossed the hallway."
"We'll just be a few more minutes." Hawkeye secured the door again and took a moment to listen at each wall before peering out the windows. Nothing.
"We've been fine keeping things quiet so far. But I'm not so sure we should continue to have this kind of conversation in my office. If someone wanted to eavesdrop, this is the obvious place to start. Be thinking about some alternatives, Lieutenant. And on that note…you're dismissed for the day. You must be exhausted. Take off and get some rest. The late shift should be on board any minute. Let the Master Sergeant see to it and go on home."
"Worried about my being out late? Seems a little ridiculous," she smiled.
"There was a time when I would have agreed with you. Go. Now. That's an order."
"Yes, sir." She spun on her heel and went out the door, warmed by his dictatorial concern, calling back to him quietly. "Please don't stay too late yourself."
"I won't." And for once, he was being truthful. Worrying and waiting had done him in, and for once he was ready to go pull the covers over his head and call an end to the day once and for all.
But not until he made a detour. All this talk of stout and amber had revved up his thirst for an ale; or was it the thirst that influenced his choice of nicknames to begin with? Gathering up his coat, he made ready to leave for his favorite pub. A bit of drink and few ladies to chat up – it was important to be seen in the usual places to give the appearance that things were perfectly normal and that nothing was wrong. That soldiers ran off for sport instead of being mysteriously abducted and erased. That as the ever-dutiful military dog vying for top rank, he would never be so unwise as to look into things that might reflect poorly on the top brass or the organization itself.
A quick check of his hazy reflection in the white glass of his office door revealed an errant lock of hair that he smoothed into place before setting out. It dawned on him that if he hurried, he might catch the Lieutenant and surprise her with the offer of a mandatory ride home on the way to his evening escapades.
Fuery barely saw the Colonel's salute as he flashed by, nearly dashing for the door.