Chapter 21 One Year, Six and a Half Months (part five)


Josie paced the length of the apartment, turning and walking back the other way. A cigarette dangled from her fingers. She raised it to her mouth, taking a drag. She sent the smoke streaming out of her nostrils as she walked, tendrils drifting up to stain the ceiling even darker yellow. The worn carpet rubbed against the soles of her bare feet, the sensation like walking on sandpaper. Throwing herself onto the couch, Josie wriggled her shoulders. The rough weave of the fabric covering the couch scratched at her skin. She raised her cigarette, puffing at it.

The click of the clock on the desk made her twitch. It boomed in her ears, like a hammer pounding on metal. Josie sucked on the end of her cigarette, watching as the paper burned down nearly to her lips. Plucking the cigarette from her mouth, she ground it out in the ashtray, and got to her feet. She rolled her shoulders, tilting her head from side to side to make her neck pop. It didn't release the tension like she'd hoped. Sitting back down, she pulled a wooden box out from under the couch. Her fingers trembling, she lifted the box's lid, revealing a battered leather pouch, cigarette papers, and matches. A bitter odor rose from the box. Josie moistened her lips again, opening the pouch. Inside, stems and bits remained of one of her last purchases when Edward was still living with her. It wasn't that long ago, she thought, wondering at how fast the marijuana had vanished. The stems weren't nearly as good as the leaves; not as potent nor good-tasting.

The opium was long gone and Josie didn't have the money herself to buy more. She didn't have the money to make the rent. Ed usually left some for her, and, because he was a State Alchemist, the landlord didn't say much if they were late. Ed never was, but sometimes, she forgot, or needed the money for something else. Josie wished she had some of his money now.

When Winry Rockbell had come to the apartment with that behemoth of a man, Josie hadn't expected it. She hadn't had the time to squirrel away some of Ed's money. He wasn't careless with it, no, but he'd kept it in a box in the bedroom. The blond bitch had taken that box with her when she'd left, along with Ed's clothes and a few other things. Josie almost missed the afghan that had lain across the back of the couch. It'd been soft and warm on chilly nights.

Gnawing on her knuckle, Josie stood up again, walking to the window facing the street. The casement had stains on it from glasses and cups and burns from cigarettes and pipes left there. A dead fly lay legs up in the sill. She wrinkled her nose, but ignored the bug to peer through the wavered glass. Pushing the tatty curtains aside, Josie studied the street below. The snow had finally melted, though it seemed cold enough to come back again at any time. She half-expected the sun to shine grey, but it did its best to illuminate the grimy road and sidewalks.

She searched the streets for some flash of gold. The sunlight tricked her twice, gilding someone's hair into the right shade, at least at first glance. "Where are you, Ed?" The quaver in her voice made her tremble even harder. She knew she wouldn't last long without him. He had the money to get what she needed. Putting her thumbnail between her teeth, she chewed on it. It tore enough Josie could peel it away from her finger. The brief flash of pain didn't dissuade her, instead, she bit deeper, barely realizing she did.

The second sting cleared her head enough to send her to the telephone. Edward had written numbers on a piece of paper and tacked it to the wall next to the telephone. Josie ran her finger along the printed names, stopping on one of them. She tapped the name twice before picking up the receiver and connecting with the operator. "I need to be connected to the military HQ," she said, forcing her voice to remain light and easy.

"Yes, ma'am. One moment."

The series of clicks sounded sharp in Josie's ear. She tried to count them – she'd only called Ed at work once, maybe twice, and she couldn't remember hearing this many clicks. Maybe the operator was connecting her somewhere else? She nearly hung up the receiver when another voice came on the line. "Amestrian Military Headquarters, this is the operator. How may I direct your call?"

Her mouth dry, Josie recited the office and name of the person she needed to speak to. While she waited for the connection, she drummed her fingers on her thigh. She wanted another cigarette, but couldn't take the time to roll it. It might distract her from what she needed to say. She could've called Ed's friend, Mrs. Hughes, but it was harder to talk to women then men. Pushing a stray curl off her forehead, Josie inhaled deeply, coughing when a man's voice came on the line.

"Hello?" he asked.

Getting control of cough, Josie choked out, "I'm trying to reach First Lieutenant Storch?"

"Of course," the man said, "hold on." Though he muffled the mouthpiece of the receiver, Josie could still hear him. "Storch! Another of your girlfriends!" He laughed as if it was some sort of joke.

Josie clenched her hand tighter around the receiver, grinding her teeth together. She needed this man Storch. He'd tell her what she needed to know. But men hated to be laughed at, and now he might not want to help her. She tried to shove her rage aside as someone else shouted the first man down. There was a terrible clatter on the other end of the line, then someone breathlessly said, "This is Storch."

"First Lieutenant Storch, thank you." Josie remembered to sound soft and humble. "I don't know if you remember me, but I'm Edward Elric's girlfriend."

There was a pause, and Storch's voice answered warily, "Yeah?"

"Yes, you took care of me at the hospital. I never got to thank you for that properly."

Storch mumbled something that sounded like, "Oh, you," then said more clearly, "That's all right, ma'am."

Josie swallowed, rubbing her temple. A throb there distracted her, and she had to fight to keep her attention focused on the telephone and the man on the other end of the line. "First Lieutenant Storch, I know you can help me. You're the only person who can!" She clutched the receiver tighter, as if it was his hand. "Someone," Josie swallowed, "that woman took Edward away, and she didn't even tell me where she was taking him."

"What woman?" Storch sounded curious.

"That woman, his mechanic," she spat out.

"Yeah, her." He didn't sound like he cared for Winry Rockbell any more than she did.

"I need to find Ed. C-can you help me?" The quaver wasn't feigned.

Silence answered her, and Josie bit her lip hard enough to make it bleed. She stomped her foot, tightening both hands around the receiver. "Please!" she finally shouted. "I need to know where he is!"

"All right, all right, stop flapping your gums," Storch said, grumbling something else under his breath that might've been, 'Crazy bitch'.

Josie licked her bleeding lip. "You'll help me?"

"Yes, I'll help you. It might take a day or two to find out where he's been assigned." Storch sighed. "What's your contact number?"

Smiling, Josie rattled off the numbers, and thanked Storch repeatedly before hanging up the receiver and breaking the connection. She spun away from the wall, giggling her delight. Soon, Ed would be with her again, and everything would be wonderful. And that Rockbell cunt could just go hang.

X X X

Edward shuddered in Izumi's grip, trying desperately to keep his footing. She held him from behind, under his arms, and he could guess at the expression on her face. Her fingers felt like ice pincers, cold and hard, and his flesh side would be bruised afterward.

"I can wash myself!" he snapped again.

"What, and give you a chance to get away like last time?" Winry asked. Her cheeks were pink, even in the weird greenish light of the shower room, but her glare gave him fair warning he was on her shit list. Poking him in the center of his chest with her forefinger, she snarled at him, "You're not going anywhere, not 'til we're done."

Behind him, Izumi chuckled. The sound made Ed's balls retract. "I don't need anyone to wash me." He tried bravado, curling his lip at Winry. "You can watch if you want."

Her eyes froze over, reminding him for an instant of Major General Armstrong. Before Edward realized she'd moved, Winry snatched the front of his shirt, shaking him hard enough to tear him loose from Izumi's grip. "Do you have any idea what you've done?" she yelled in his face. "You idiot! You stole from me, Ed. From me! You broke into my medicine cabinet and took drugs I need for my customers. From people who trust me, the way I trusted you."

Edward jerked out of her grasp, nearly falling back into Izumi, but sidestepped her. His feet felt too huge, too awkward, and he nearly tripped over the loaner leg. It kept him out of both women's reach, even though he nearly went down to one knee. Staggering, he managed to keep his balance on the slick floor. "Trusted me," he said, almost spitting the words. "You haven't trusted me since I let Al die."

The words echoed around them, bouncing off the hard walls and floor and ceiling. Winry's eyes sparked at that, their cold fury vanishing in fire. Her fist slammed into his cheek, nearly spinning Ed around. He caught a glimpse of Izumi's face as he lurched sideways, though he couldn't read her expression. Standing up, Ed faced Winry again, tilting his head from one side to the other to make his neck pop. "Wanna do that again?"

She panted, her fists half-raised, as if she might try to hit him a second time. Hectic color glowed in her cheeks, better than the sallowness the green walls produced. Edward swallowed, trying to keep from thinking how beautiful she was. "Yes," Winry hissed, "but I'm not!" Instead, she poked him in the chest again. "You're goading me, Ed. You want me to hit you, don't you?" Lifting her chin so she could meet his eyes directly, she stared into them until Ed had to look away. "You jerk!"

"I'm a lot worse than that, Winry." He began unbuttoning his shirt, mentally swearing at the lack of control in his automail fingers and the stiffness of his flesh ones, with the cast hampering his movements. "Haven't you figured it out yet?"

"Quit being an ass, Ed."

He glanced at her, trying to keep his face expressionless. Izumi stood behind Winry. The pair of them presented a united front of fury. Edward deliberately turned his back on them, dropping his shirt on the floor. The wooden leg threw his balance off. He knew it wasn't worth anything now; too waterlogged from last night and a shower would do it no good at all.

Izumi said something to Winry, who scoffed. He ignored them to lower his pants and underwear onto the damp floor. Hissing at the sting of his chapped thighs, Edward tottered under the shower head, turning the water on. The hot water knob barely worked, just adding the faintest amount of heat to the cold spewing out of the faucet. Shuddering, Edward stepped into the spray, letting it beat on his head. The sensation increased his headache, but he could ignore it, too.

The squeal of the door opening caught his attention, but Edward didn't bother turning around. The hard soap barely made a lather and felt rough against his skin. He scrubbed anyway, trying not to think why he bothered.

"Izumi's transmuting your clothes clean," Winry said behind him. "Mr. Mustang's arranging for you to be released into his custody, then you're coming with us."

He shivered under the barely-lukewarm water. His teeth chattered before he managed to clamp his jaw closed.

"Do you want me to tell you where we're going?"

Finishing scrubbing himself, Ed ducked his head under the water stream, sluicing what soap he'd worked onto his body down the drain. His head pounded as he ducked to twist the water flow off. Behind him, Winry tapped her foot on the concrete floor, waiting on him to answer her question. He turned to face her, giving her a chance for a good look before asking, "Got a towel for me?"

Her cheeks flushed bright, though Ed wasn't sure if it was anger or embarrassment. "Yes," she grated out, and stomped off to get one, sliding once on the damp floor.

Ed closed his eyes for a few seconds, feeling his stomach roll up. He burped, a horrible taste filling his mouth, the gas stinging the inside of his nasal passages. Something hit him in the face and Ed grabbed at it automatically, realizing Winry had thrown a towel at him. The fabric scraped over his body, making it feel like it peeled skin rather than dried it. Edward persevered, wincing only when he rubbed the towel over the chaffed skin between his legs.

The door opened again and Sig entered, ducking to get through the doorway. He carried Ed's clothes, the size of his hands making them look more suitable for dolls. "Get dressed, Ed," he said, offering the clothing. "We don't have a lot of time to get to the train station."

Accepting the clothes, Ed began dressing. His still-damp hair dripped down his spine and clung to his face. He glanced through his bangs toward Winry. She stood with her arms folded, staring at the wooden leg. Edward had to force himself to keep dressing rather than hesitate. He knew what she saw – the foot, all banged up; nicks in the shaft of the calf. The water stains. The knee joint moved only with effort, the damp swelling it to near immobility.

"Dressed," he said tonelessly.

"Come along, Ed," Sig said, laying a meaty hand on his shoulder. The weight of it nearly staggered Ed, but he managed to stay upright. Winry fell in behind as Sig guided him out of the shower and back into the jail proper. Izumi and the bastard waited, with Hawkeye standing behind them both.

Edward forced a cocky grin, tossing his damp bangs off his face. He showed all of his teeth. "So, where are we going?"

"You'll find out," Izumi said.

He didn't like the smirk Mustang wore. The bastard led them out of the jail and into a pair of cars that drove them to the train station. Sig put Ed in the car with Mustang and Hawkeye. He guessed Sig joined Winry and Izumi in the other car. Leaning his head against the window and closing his eyes, Ed hoped to be ignored.

"Aren't you at all interested in what's going to happen now, Edward?"

No such reprieve. "No."

Mustang went on as if he hadn't spoken. "The Curtises and Miss Rockbell will be taking charge of you. Again."

"Lucky me."

His voice beating against Edward's ears like a drum tattoo, Mustang said, "That's exactly how you should consider yourself, Edward. By rights, I should let you rot in that jail for a few days, or throw you in to the brig. You are being a fool, endangering yourself as well as the people around you. Do you have any idea what kind of damage you caused last night?"

Edward tried to remember it, but drew a blank. "No." He folded his arms. "I guess no one died, since that'd be in the news." And even Mustang's clout wouldn't have gotten him out of jail if there'd been a death.

Mustang leaned closer, the heat of his body feeling like an incinerator. Edward opened his eyes to see the man a few scant centimeters away from him. "No, Fullmetal," Mustang said, his breath fanning against Ed's face, "no deaths. Thankfully. But had you not been restrained, Edward, there could have been deaths. Do you not remember anything about what happened last night?"

Recoiling best he could from the bastard's proximity, Ed curled his lip. "No."

"Hawkeye?"

She recited as if reading from a file though no paper was in evidence, which just meant she'd fucking memorized it, "At approximately seventeen-forty-five hours, the train pulled into the Sondem station. Military police were waiting, as contact had been made via radio that an alchemist on board was attempting to destroy a train car. The alchemist, identified as one Edward Elric, commonly known as 'Fullmetal', had awakened from sleep and started shouting at someone called 'Alphonse'. It appeared to the witnesses that Major Elric was fighting a ghost."

He couldn't see her through Mustang's fat head, but Ed knew from the tone of her voice what kind of expression she wore – the same one she used when she called her boss out in front of others for being an idiot.

"Do you have any explanation, Fullmetal?" the bastard asked through almost clenched teeth.

"I guess I had a bad dream." Ed shrugged, wanting to slide sideways and out of Mustang's breathing range.

"A bad dream? Are you sure it's not a hallucination brought on by abuse of medicines not prescribed to you?"

"Whatever."

Mustang hissed through his teeth, settling back into his seat. Ed twitched his shoulders. The headache had moved to encompass his skull all the way down to his back. Fuck. Josie knew how to take care of his headaches. She had a way with her hands, and the opium never hurt. Letting his head fall back, he stared at the ceiling, a niggling reminding him of something he might want to know. "So, where are you taking me?"

"I told you, you're being transferred directly into the custody of the Curtises and Miss Rockbell, despite my belief you'd be better served in the stockade for a number of months, until you completely dried out."

Curiosity prompted Ed to ask, "So, why aren't you letting me stay in jail?"

"Because, Edward, once upon a time, you were indeed a hero. I can't help but believe, somewhere deep inside, some part of the young man I respected remains." His dark eyes slotting, Mustang added, "I hope you don't prove me wrong."

X X X

Mr. Mustang and Miss Riza escorted Ed to the platform while Mr. Curtis bought tickets for them all. Winry took the time to study Ed as he hobbled toward them. Washed up and in clean clothes, he didn't look quite as bad as he had in the jail cell, though he still didn't look good. The police had probably taken him down hard, from the bruises she could see. There were others under his clothes – she'd made note of them when he'd been showering. The cast on his arm needed to be replaced, nearly in as bad shape as the loaner leg she'd given him – was it only yesterday? Winry sighed, passing her fingers over her brow. Just how could they get through to him? Would her idea work, or would it backfire?

"Please don't tell me you're having second thoughts, Miss Rockbell," Mr. Mustang said as they approached.

Winry stiffened her spine, clenching her fists at the implications. "No," she said, determined to see this through. Turning her attention to Ed, she realized one of the bruises came from when she'd hit him in the shower earlier. "Absolutely not." She jerked her chin at Ed. "You're coming with me. Us," she amended, glancing sideways at Izumi.

"Back to Rush Valley?" Ed nearly drawled the question.

Izumi ignored him, directing her statement to Mr. Mustang. "We'll take it from here, Brigadier General."

"I'm sure you will, Mrs. Curtis." Mr. Mustang laid his hand on Edward's shoulder, tightening his grip when Ed stiffened and tried to sidle sideways. "Fullmetal, you are currently on an extended leave. If you fail to cooperate with the Curtises and Miss Rockbell, you will be brought back to Central City in stocks and you will find yourself in the brig as I would actually prefer you to be."

Ed's lip curled. "Fine," he growled, but there was no heat in it. Winry thought he was going through the motions, rather than feeling anything – not the first time she'd considered it. "So." He gave Winry a belligerent look. "Rush Valley and the hyenas?"

"No," Winry found herself saying. "Somewhere else. There's someone who wants to see you."

The blink Ed gave her let her know just how much she'd surprised him.