Ed pulled his red coat more tightly around his shivering body and let out a long, slow breath, watching it stream in front of him in a thin fog before it dispersed into the crisp, cold night air. There was no chance the colonel would see the foggy breath as his subordinate huddled here in the shadows: the man was too busy letting the three women on the porch of the big house next door make a fuss over him. If he'd just go inside and get it over with, Ed could go back to Al and their warm dormitory room, and this whole silly escapade would be over with.
He'd only stepped outside for some fresh air on this quiet New Year's night, but when he'd caught sight of Roy Mustang sauntering through the quiet, gently snowing evening, enveloped in a long black coat, a canvas bag laden with presents hanging over one arm, he just hadn't been able to resist following him. If nothing else, he wanted to see who in the world the man had in Central, to take that many presents to.
He should have guessed, when their course gradually took them outside the realm of plentiful street lamps toward the seedier, more shadowed part of town, the temperature continuing to drop as his ears and hands got colder and colder. But it wasn't until Mustang stopped in front of a large three-story house on a corner facing a small courtyard with a little fountain in the centre (the water turned off for the winter), and began climbing the five steps up to the wide double doors, that Ed rolled his eyes with a private little sneer. Of course. That man and his women.
He knew what sort of house this was – and he knew what sort of work its female occupants did.
One of the doors had opened almost immediately at Mustang's knock, as though someone had been waiting for him. And as light flooded onto the wide porch from the front hall of the house, revealing the pine garlands interlaced with holly that outlined the door, three young women in long, slinky party dresses stepped outside to greet him.
Ed's first thought: Three of them? Three at once?
Maybe the guy's reputation was deserved.
The padding of snow underfoot and the lowered clouds tended to muffle sounds tonight, but the voices next door were easy to hear. "Roy – you're late! We thought you'd never get here," said one of them, a tall woman with long brown hair, as she slipped a hand through his free arm.
"I'm not that late, Petra; just a few minutes," Mustang smiled. He lifted his other arm, the one with the bag, to circle the bare shoulders of a shorter, younger woman with short blond hair. "Lily, you should have waited inside," he chided gently. "You're already cold."
"We've got the fireplace blazing," she laughed, her voice as light as her hair. "Even without you there."
The man leaned forward to press his lips to the black hair on the forehead of the third woman, standing in the doorway. "I don't have enough arms," he complained.
"Come inside, then, and we'll take turns," she teased.
Take turns. Ed shuddered. Well, that was it, then, he thought briskly. As soon as the coast was clear, he'd go back to the dorm. He'd found out where the colonel was spending his New Year's Eve, and it wasn't such a great thing after all. He wasn't sure why this should disappoint him, but it did, a little. He blew softly on his hands in the shadows of the building next door to the house, waiting for Mustang to go in with the three (three!) women.
But as they tried to guide him to the doorway, the man paused. "Just one more thing," he said, and raised his voice slightly. "Edward, you might as well come in for a cup of mulled wine before you go back. You must be cold by now."
Ed quelled a gasp of surprise, his heart dropping like a stone to his feet. How in the world did the bastard know? Ed had followed at some distance, and the thick layer of snow on the sidewalks had masked any noise he might have made. There was just no way the guy could know – and yet –
Should he stay quiet and not answer? Would Mustang think he'd made a mistake, that he hadn't been followed after all? But no, it was clear that he knew his subordinate was here, and who could guess what he'd do if he didn't get a response? He had white gloves on, but it wasn't clear whether or not they were those gloves.
Ed took two reluctant steps out of the shadows, frowning darkly at the man over top of the waist-high hedge between buildings. "All right," he grumbled, his foggy breath blurring the image of the man on the porch. "How long have you known I was behind you? I was being careful."
"From the beginning," Mustang chuckled. "What, Ed, do you think I've spent all those years on a battlefield and not learned to detect when a non-expert is dogging me?" His eyes sharpened on the young man's face. "So exactly why were you following, anyway?"
Ed shrugged as a wave of cold seemed to go through right to his bones. He blew on his hands again, staring at his boots, this whole thing suddenly seeming very foolish. "I was just curious," he muttered. "I wondered who you were taking all the presents to, that's all. Sorry. I'll stop bothering you, and go now."
"No, I want you to stay. I can see you shivering from here. I meant it – come in and get warm first."
Ed's quick glance upward took in the colonel and the three women all dressed their slinky, revealing gowns, and he could feel his cheeks colouring even in the darkness of the yard. Go in there? With him? To get warm?
"Sorry," he snorted indelicately, "that isn't the way I spend New Year's."
"It wasn't a mere suggestion, Fullmetal. Come here please. Now."
"Fullmetal!" exclaimed the blond woman. "So this is the little alchemist you've told us about?"
"The what?" Ed burst out without thinking. "I am not little!" Why, she was hardly any taller than he was himself! She had some nerve –
"Ed. Calm down and get up here." Mustang's voice had taken on the very slightest edge of frustration. "I'm not letting you go back to the dorm without warming up first. You were an idiot to come out without a hat and gloves – "
"You don't have a hat," Ed retorted with a glance at the light dusting of snow glittering on the older man's dark hair.
Mustang went on as though he hadn't spoken, "And besides," he added with a sly glint in his eyes, "you did take the trouble to find out where I was going. You might as well come in and see the answer. You might actually enjoy yourself."
Enjoy! Did he mean – he couldn't possibly mean –
Ed walked around the hedge and climbed the stairs, feeling like a man climbing the scaffold. He vowed, if Mustang actually intended to make Ed join in with – with – whatever he planned to do in this place, he'd – he'd –
He was being stupid. Nobody could force him to do anything he didn't want to do – especially the colonel. And the guy had to be teasing anyway; Ed had pretty much asked for it by engaging in his amateur spy operation. So he swallowed past his pounding heart, squaring his shoulders as he came to a stop a safe distance from the tableau on the porch.
But "safe distance" apparently meant nothing, because immediately the black-haired woman, all in sleek, shiny red, smiled a welcome and took his hand. He tugged surreptitiously, trying to pull free, but she kept his fingers enclosed in an iron grip, and ushered him relentlessly into the large front hall. Mustang followed with his other two companions. The young blond woman – Lily, Ed remembered – shut the door behind them, while Petra, the taller woman hanging on the man's other arm, brushed a hand across his hair and shoulders.
"We need to get you out of that coat," she admonished. And, glancing over, "You too, Fullmetal."
Ed reflexively clutched the front of his coat shut, and Mustang burst out laughing. "Edward, you idiot. The thing is cold. If you keep it on, you'll stay cold that much longer. Just take it off. Unless," this with a suggestive smile, "you'd rather I encourage these three ladies to help you with that?" He himself, as he spoke, set down the canvas bag and pulled off his own heavy black coat, unfurled the elegant white scarf from around his neck, and removed the white (non-spark-producing) gloves from his hands, finger by finger.
"Oh yes!" Lily giggled, coming toward Ed, hands outstretched. "Let us take your clothes off for you…"
"No!" Ed blurted loudly. "I mean – " shrugging quickly out of the garment, "Here – take it." He held it out at arm's length, snatching his hand back the instant the young woman took it from him. She handed it to Petra, who disappeared, carrying both coats, into what seemed to be a large cloak room near the front door.
He was acting like a virginal adolescent. It was just a coat. Just a coat. He repeated the sentence to himself like a mantra, trying to get hold of his skittish nerves. He wasn't here for – well, for whatever Mustang was here for. Nobody could make him do anything he didn't want to. If these people got too…frisky…he'd simply retrieve his coat and go. As long as he could clap his hands together, none of them could keep him from leaving.
He had a swift, horrifying vision of his hands tied – apart – to the corners of a bedframe – and shrank from it with another shudder. It wasn't that he really was so virginal (things happened, sometimes, while he and Al were travelling), but the thought of engaging in some kind of group thing with all these professional women – and with Roy Mustang as part of the mix… He watched the man straightening the black silk vest over his white shirt, all dashing elegance, and turned away, gulping. It was just beyond contemplating.
To distract himself, he examined his surroundings. The reception room opened on the right side of the front hall, and Ed paused in the wide arched entryway to take in the velvet-upholstered wine coloured couches, the heavy, carved side tables of dark, polished wood, the thick curtains and tapestries on the walls, the red carpet so plush you could almost sink into it up to your ankles...
He wondered, fleetingly, why there were no customers waiting there, but Mustang drew his attention back by starting to make introductions. Petra and Lily were the names Ed already knew, and the other black-haired woman, almond-shaped eyes and olive skin revealing her eastern heritage, was called Jasmine.
Lily took Ed's arm, her blue eyes sparkling with mischief. "Come and meet the others. They're going to be so excited that Roy brought you to join us."
'Others.' The others??
Ed had to resist the urge to cast the older man an incredulous look over his shoulder as the young woman led him down the main hallway. His surprise grew as they completely bypassed the wide, curving, carpeted staircase that led up into the shadowed upper regions of the house.
Lily caught his expression and laughed. "Oh, nobody's working up there tonight. The house is closed for business. Tonight is all for Roy. New Year's Eve always is."
He couldn't help himself. He twisted to stare wide-eyed over his shoulder at Mustang, who smiled smugly back at him, making no reply.
After going past a couple of closed doors on either side of the hall beyond the stairs, they went through another set of double doors at the end, and entered the parlour of what seemed to be another complete house. Perhaps the real living quarters of all the women who worked here? But why were they bringing the men here, instead of taking them upstairs? Wouldn't they prefer to separate business from their private life? Ed wished he had a clue what was going on here.
He watched, mouth open, as several other lovely young women arose from their seats and approached his commanding officer with the same exclamations of delight that the man had elicited on the front porch.
Just how many women did Mustang intend to keep company tonight??
And – and – just how good was he, that the entire house would shut down on what could have been their busiest night of the year, all so the women could concentrate solely on him??
Ed felt something under his chin, and discovered Mustang's finger there, gently pushing his gaping jaw closed. "Do try to show a little couth, Fullmetal," the man murmured before the fresh wave of women engulfed him.
The impressions assaulted Ed's senses all at once: the happy greetings of the women, the elegant furnishings (the furniture less heavily ornate than what stood in the "working" part of the house), the blazing fireplace on the other side of the room, the tall candlesticks in the frosted windows, New Year's garlands of pine and holly draping the walls and windows – and, permeating the atmosphere, the most mouth-watering aromas Ed had ever smelled in his life.
"It's the roast goose," Lily told him, still holding onto his arm.
"The – the what?" Ed faltered in bewilderment.
Mustang emerged from the veritable cloud of women who surrounded him to announce, "Ladies, I've brought a guest to join our entertainments tonight. I hope," he added with a narrow-eyed smile, "that you'll be gentle, for his first time. This is Edward Elric – the Fullmetal Alchemist."
Well. If Ed had thought Lily was excited to discover his identity, that had been the merest foretaste. He found himself now surrounded by the cloud, as the women advanced upon him and greeted him with almost the same enthusiasm with which they'd welcomed Mustang. One or two pulled him briefly into a voluptuous, engulfing embrace (was it getting hot in here??), he felt a couple of gentle strokes down his face with long fingers, their owners favouring him with suggestive smiles, and then another woman (he had a quick vision of billowing blond hair) cupped his face and kissed him so thoroughly that he could feel things stirring that really, really shouldn't be activated.
"Wait – stop – "he gasped. "I'm not – I don't – want – "
He tried to back away but bumped into Lily, almost stepping on her foot. He wavered between anger and sheer terror, his fervent need to escape warring with the fear of looking like a total idiot while Mustang laughed at him. He was not a shy, inexperienced school kid kissing his first girl, he was the Fullmetal Alchemist, dammit!
Even if that identity was actually part of his current problem –
"Roy! Girls! Stop teasing the poor boy!" A stern female voice broke into the festivities, and every head turned toward a wide doorway where three more women had now entered from another room. All were a fair bit older than the colonel, and the central figure, a buxom woman with billowing dark hair flowing over her shoulders, was clearly the one who had spoken. She frowned at Mustang and chided, "You're not being very nice, you know."
Mustang smiled. "I know," he agreed. "I've just been paying him back for following and spying on me."
"Well, stop it, silly child. And come here." Now the woman smiled back at him, and opened her arms.
His whole demeanour changed. He walked to her and laid his head on her shoulder as she embraced him. They hugged for a long moment, the woman patting his hair with a gentle hand.
"Welcome home," she murmured.
He lifted his head and smiled again. "Happy New Year, mom," he said, kissing her cheek.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Ed was vaguely aware of Lily beside him, giggling, but he didn't notice that his mouth was hanging open again until Mustang turned, still encircled within his companion's arm, and laughed. "You don't look very dignified, you know," he teased.
"And you're enjoying your little secrets far too much," said the woman, squeezing his shoulder before releasing him and coming forward, the others stepping aside as she approached. "Edward, I've heard such good things about you," said the woman, holding out a hand heavily laden with jewelled rings. "My name is Chris Mustang, and your unkind friend Roy, here," she added, quirking an eyebrow at the other man, "is my foster son. This is my house."
"And this house, Ed," Mustang augmented with that lazy smile of his, " is where I grew up."