He made his way along the dark hallway, guided by a wedge of lamplight that emerged from a half-opened door nearby to fall across the carpet and climb the wall on the opposite side. He could hear the murmur of voices, but couldn't yet make out any words. The strip of light wavered and trembled a couple of times, forcing him to pause and blink until his eyes cleared.
Ed inched closer to the door, grateful for the plush carpet that masked whatever sound his steps might have made. His feet didn't feel entirely steady right now, for some reason. He pressed his shoulder to the wall and leaned slowly forward, peering around the door jamb with one cautious eye, several strands of blond hair straying off his forehead to dangle at the edge of his vision. He saw Madam Chris and the colonel immediately, bending with their backs to him, over a thick ledger illuminated by two large lamps on either corner of a wide desk. Behind it ranged almost an entire wall of shelves filled with books.
"So," Mustang mused quietly, "we don't quite have enough."
"Not with Lily's earnings about to go down," the woman shook her head. "She plans to contribute what she can, but we know she won't bring in nearly as much with her dressmaking, at least for a while. She's even thinking of keeping a couple of clients she likes, just to help out..."
"We'll have to discourage that," the man straightened up. "It defeats the whole purpose. Though she's a real trooper, to suggest it." He turned and half-sat on the edge of the desk, arms folded across his vest. Ed quickly pulled back from the opening, heart pounding in alarm, a wave of dizziness forcing him to lean back and balance himself by pressing his hands to the wall on either side of him.
Mustang continued, "So. I need to find some way to keep Rita from having to entertain clients after she comes here. I really don't think she could handle it much longer; she's very young, and as delicate as Alison was."
Wait a minute. Ed frowned into the shadows. What were they talking about? They were bringing another girl here, and not going to make her work upstairs?
He stared at the closed door half illuminated on the opposite side of the hall, and concentrated on every word. For a moment he could hear a clock ticking, somewhere in the office, before Madam Chris spoke again.
"That's the problem, of course," she went on. "Having Alison not work all this time has stretched our resources. Especially paying for her medical training, on top of the fact that her studies are so heavy that she can't take a part-time job."
"I can help with that. There's a paid internship I can get her into at the military hospital, so she'll get credit for her practicum, but also bring in a bit of money."
"That would help, if you can arrange it," the woman agreed. "And then there's Laney. She's only got the one term left."
"I don't think that'll be a problem, mom," the colonel said. "There's another young lady I've been talking to, who can work in her place. She's not going to mind continuing to work for a while, if she can train for something else while she's doing it. She's very strong, and has a great attitude. Though I really wish…I could just take her away from the work immediately."
"Child, we wish that for all of them. If there were some way we could fund it…"
"I know. Never mind. At least we manage it for the ones who need it most."
"Though I swear, Roy, if Rita decides she wants to train in engineering or medicine, the tuition is coming straight out of your pocket this time."
Mustang burst out laughing. "It's a deal, mom. But I win – she wants to learn gardening."
Ed listened in silence, barely breathing, and gradually the heat of humiliation rose in his cheeks as the rage of a few moments ago drained away. He was an idiot. Again. He'd jumped to conclusions without hearing all the facts, and had gotten everything all wrong – again.
He'd heard enough. He'd better get back into the room with the women and try to pretend he hadn't been behaving like an insufferable grouch. Maybe they hadn't really noticed. Maybe Mustang hadn't figured it out…he hoped against hope that the man hadn't figured it out…
Ed pushed off of the wall and edged his way back toward the sliver of light from the slightly open door that led into the other half of the house. He wasn't feeling entirely sure on his feet, especially in this darkness, so he had to drag the fingers of his flesh hand lightly along the wall to orient himself. If he could just get out of here, just slip back in without anyone really noticing –
"Not so fast!"
Pain jabbed the side of his head as something – someone – grabbed his ear and jerked him backward. He half staggered, half fell, arms pinwheeling as he was dragged inexorably into the office. Instinctively he jerked his head free, clapping his hands together as he whirled around –
"Ed no, god, no!"
He gasped, still reeling, at the sight of the colonel's face, stark white, mouth open in horror.
This house – the man's home – about to be wrecked by some wild alchemical reaction.
Ed froze, swaying, his hands inches apart, the activated power tingling through his body like an electric current.
Madam Chris stepped forward, eyebrows drawn in a deep frown. "Just what were you –" But Mustang's arm barred her way. "Don't touch him," the man breathed, his eyes never leaving Ed's face. "Not when he's just clapped his hands. Edward. Are you…?"
The tingling had already intensified until it felt like a thousand tiny needles pricking every inch of him. Ed gasped, "Just…hold on. Have to…disperse…"
He went to one knee, closing his eyes against the frightening look on the colonel's face. Fighting another wave of dizziness he pressed his hands to the ornate Eastern carpet on the floor. He felt the alchemic power activate, and directed it as carefully and harmlessly as he could. He sensed as his chosen materials gathered together and began to alter to fit the pattern he saw in his mind. And at last the power siphoned out of him as it completed the work.
Leaning an elbow on his upraised knee, he opened his eyes and regarded the light grey single-cup clay teapot sitting on the carpet in front of him. He'd embossed a light pink floral pattern on the side, to match the lotus flower pattern in the carpet.
"Edward," Mustang ventured. "I don't see anything missing in here. What did you use to make the pot?"
Ed sighed. "I pulled all the dust off the shelves and the books and everything else."
Madam Chris looked around, eyebrows raised. "I knew I needed to dust in here, but I had no idea…"
"I pulled all the dust out of the air too. And between the floorboards."
"Right, then," Mustang said, voice hardening as he picked up the teapot to set it on the desk. "Now would you mind telling me just what you were doing out there?"
Ed got to his feet, swaying unsteadily, pushing his braid back over his shoulder with one hand, evasive eyes sliding off the other man's face. "Nothing," he muttered. "I needed something from my coat pocket – "
"Don't lie to me," the colonel retorted, frowning darkly. "You were listening at the door. Spying on me – again. And I want to know why. Why do you keep doing this?"
"I don't know!" Ed blurted, the colour rising in his face again. "I was stupid. Okay? I wanted to know what was going on here. That's all."
"And you never thought just to ask?"
"No," Ed mumbled. "You never tell me anything."
"Some things I can't tell you, Fullmetal, either because they're classified or you're safer if you don't know them. And some things aren't your business anyway. But I brought you inside tonight, didn't I?" the man demanded. "Instead of sending you away after you followed me? I did reveal something, didn't I?"
Ed shrugged. He wished he could stop feeling like an idiot. "Well, yes, but…"
"But what?" Mustang cried in exasperation.
"But, well…I don't know why. I don't know why you brought me inside. Why are you doing all this? At first I thought you were trying to make me look stupid to punish me for following you, but now…I don't know why you're doing this."
He saw Madam Chris watching her foster son, as though curious what his answer would be. Mustang leaned back against the desk once more, resting both his hands on the edge. He answered softly, "Ed…I just wanted you to have fun."
"You what?" Ed repeated blankly.
"You're always so serious, so driven. Alphonse has other things he enjoys, but you never let yourself be diverted by anything." The man ran a hand through his hair. "Ed…it's New Year's. I just want you to have a little fun, for a change. That's all."
Ed stared at him, mouth half-open. "Fun," he repeated, wondering when exactly he had lost his ability to say anything intelligent. He met the eyes of his superior officer, finally recognizing the concern there, and the heat rose inside again. This time, though, it thickened his throat, and made his eyes begin to sting mysteriously. "Colonel," he breathed hoarsely. "I'm sorry. I…I…"
Mustang's lips curled up in a wry smile. "Ed – you're drunk, or close to it. Look – you've satisfied your curiosity, and now you know what we do in this house. It's not perfect, and I wish we could do better, but at least now you know I'm not some kind of pimp. I hope you know, anyway. That's what you thought, isn't it?"
Ed lowered his eyes, face flushing. "I'm an idiot."
"Never mind. It was a logical conclusion, and I suppose I didn't really make things clear. Come on, why don't we just go back in and dance and forget everything? Midnight's not too far away now. Let's dance and have some fun and toast the New Year, and then we'll go home. How does that sound?"
Madam Chris finally stepped forward, slipping an arm around Ed's shoulders. With her free hand, she brushed a stray lock of hair out of his eyes. "Come on back in, child, and I'll make you some coffee. And by the way – I quite like the new teapot. And now I can leave the dusting for another few days."
Another gush of inner warmth. What a nice person, Ed thought. "I'd actually prefer a glass of wine," he told her earnestly. "It was really good – "
"Coffee," the woman repeated firmly, and Mustang laughed.
"You'd better listen to her, Ed. She doesn't take kindly to being disobeyed."
The woman made a face at her foster son, over Ed's head, and then turned him around and shepherded him back down the hall and into the room where the other women continued to dance. Someone – Jasmine? Asha? – cried, "The men are back!" and immediately Jasmine pulled him to the other side of the room where a new record was just beginning to play.
He still wasn't entirely steady on his feet, but that didn't seem to matter. After a couple of dances with Jasmine, he found himself being kind of swung between Jheun and Lily, and they kept him upright. He rather enjoyed the mellow feeling that had begun to take hold of him. He caught occasional glimpses of Mustang dancing nearby, and kept flinging warm smiles at the man. He didn't quite know why that made the guy laugh, though…
After a while, Madam Chris brought him a mug of coffee and made him sit in her arm chair until he'd drunk at least half of it. It was delicious – was there chocolate in it or something? And there was some kind of nut flavour too, he thought.
Then – more dancing. He was really getting the hang of it now, even if he did stumble occasionally. He didn't remember being dizzy when he danced before, but it didn't matter. This was fun. Lily's short blond hair had begun to form damp curls all along her hairline, and Devra had discarded her long red scarf. He noticed that Mustang had unbuttoned his vest, and that the man's tie was missing.
He decided that he'd have to tell Al tomorrow: they needed to have fun sometimes. He was the big brother. Time to put his foot down. Not his automail foot, though, or it would go through the floor. He laughed to himself, then slapped his hand over his mouth to stop the laugh from turning into a giggle. He had an image to maintain.
He lost track of time as he danced, took another break to finish his coffee, and got up to dance again. This time the room really spun, and he'd have keeled over if the colonel hadn't been nearby to grab his arm and prevent it. "You really are drunk, Ed," the man laughed. "All those glasses you had before are really taking effect now."
"N' I'm not," Ed maintained staunchly. He steadied himself, looked down to make sure both feet were actually on the floor, and walked carefully back to the dance floor.
A few minutes later, Lily called out over the music, "It's almost time, everyone!"
Alison, with whom he'd been dancing, stopped immediately and dashed off somewhere. Looking around in confusion, Ed saw Jasmine at the phonograph, replacing the record that had been playing. The new tune was familiar, and he knew he should recognize it. A vague memory flashed into his foggy mind: hadn't his mother sung this song sometimes at this time of year? He wasn't sure, and the thought briefly saddened him, until he found himself with another glass in his hand, wondering how it got there. He took a little sip. Grape juice.
"It's best you don't have any more wine," Madam Chris smiled at his side, "but you can still make the toast."
Everyone in the room had found a glass of wine and now stood watching Lily as she hovered in front of the fireplace, peering at the clock on the mantel. She pushed a lock of hair behind one ear and counted down as the last seconds of the year ticked away. "…seven, six, five, four, three, two, one… Happy New Year!" she cried, turning to lift her glass to her family.
"Happy New Year!" The calls rang back and forth across the room, punctuated by the ringing clinks of wine glasses. All the girls began to take quick drinks of their wine and then hug each other.
Mustang touched his glass to Ed's, his dark eyes smiling. "Happy New Year, Edward," he murmured. "I hope this year brings you closer to finding the way to restore Al's human body."
There was that tight throat again. "Thanks. I mean it." Ed's eyes went all misty. "You know, you – you're a good guy – really – "
"Don't," Mustang laughed, holding up a cautioning hand. "Oh please, just don't even start. You'll be so sorry tomorrow if you keep talking."
Ed stared at him, mystified, but right away Lily distracted him, coming up and leaning forward to kiss his cheek. Then he was engulfed by the others, who each took a turn (and sometimes more than one) giving both him and Mustang a New Year's kiss and hug. That felt very, very nice, Ed had to admit. He didn't know why he hadn't tried this sort of thing before. Or why he'd been so nervous about it when he first arrived here.
Finally Madam Chris approached the two men, put an arm around each of them, and pulled them simultaneously into her expansive embrace. "You boys have made it a very special night," she murmured. "I'm so glad you came to join us, Ed. We'll want you back for dinner again soon, and next time we want to meet your brother too. Understand, Roy? Soon."
"Yes ma'am," the man agreed.
It didn't take long after that before Ed found himself enjoying still another pleasant round of hugs and kisses as Mustang returned to the office to call a car and driver so they could both go home. A few moments later, back in the front hall of the main house, Madam Chris brought out their coats, and Lily helped Ed into his, since for some reason his hands didn't seem to be as dexterous as usual.
"Remember, Ed," Madam Chris reminded him, holding Mustang's long black coat up by the shoulders so he could shrug himself into it. "Dinner with you and your brother. Soon."
And at last the car arrived. As Mustang kissed his foster mother and then opened the door and stepped outside, Lily gave Ed one last hug and murmured in his ear as she kissed his cheek again, "Just wait till I quit working upstairs. I'm going to see you again, and that's a promise."
And at last the two of them were on their way, waved on by several young ladies in party dresses all gathered on the front steps of the most unusual brothel in Central City.
As Ed settled into the back seat beside his commanding officer, Mustang leaned forward and murmured to the driver, "I think we'll head to the military dormitories first, if you don't mind. I need to get this young man safely home first."
Ed leaned back and let his head sag against the window. The car began to move, and he watched the buildings go slowly by as the driver carefully manoeuvred the vehicle along the quiet, white-shrouded streets. Snow continued to fall, very lightly, setting sparkles into the night air that glittered like diamonds whenever they passed under a street lamp.
All those young women, Ed thought, half-dozing in the dreamy warmth. They'd probably all worked out here over New Year's at one time or other, on the cold streets where no one worried about them or took care of them. Then along came Roy Mustang, a man of more facets than his subordinate had ever guessed, and he'd saved them from the street and taken them to that loving, happy house. A place where they could learn other skills, have a family, have a hope of getting out of their work altogether and have something good to live for, work toward, and look forward to. Something to hope for.
That could make all the difference in whether a person gave up, or kept striving to make something good in their life. Ed knew how all these women must feel, being given this unexpected and wondrous hope. After all, hadn't he had the same experience himself?
The thoughts and memories flowed by, like the sights on the street outside, moving of their own accord and without effort. He remembered his own despair, that night about six years ago, the night he'd committed his great sin and robbed his brother of his body. He'd been in such terrible pain; it had transcended all the painkillers that Pinako Rockbell had dared to give him.
He'd been so hopeless, lying maimed and sick, half-delirious, hardly caring any more if he lived or died. Things had gone so badly, and there had seemed no way of ever repairing the damage he'd done, or of rising up from the bed to take action again. He honestly thought, now, that he'd been on the verge of just letting go, giving up and letting himself die. Such despair, when he was barely eleven.
If he hadn't been given that hope – if Roy Mustang hadn't come along just when he had, at just the right moment, and planted the seed of the idea that Ed could become a State Alchemist and maybe still have a hope of atoning for what he'd —
Ed's breath caught. The memory cut sharply through his drowsiness and the mellow afterglow of the alcohol. As though it were yesterday he remembered a dark-haired young man leaning over his sick bed, official pocket watch dangling from one hand, a faint smile on his lips as he dangled the knowledge and possibilities of State Alchemy in front of Ed's eyes, like a lure, like a lamp in darkness, a beacon of hope…
Ed sat up and turned to find Mustang's thoughtful eyes on his face. Licking his lips cautiously, the younger man asked, "Why did you come into the house, that night? The night Al lost his body? The night I was…dying?"
The man smiled – the same small, secretive smile from that long-ago night, and looked away. "I was in the neighbourhood, Fullmetal. You know that."
"But it wasn't just that," Ed insisted. "It was more than – "
"Ah, here we are. Good." The car passed through the arched, wrought iron gate and traversed the drive up to the main double doors of the military dorm. As the vehicle pulled to a stop, the driver putting on the parking brake and waiting as it idled, Mustang turned another smile on his young subordinate. The same smile that he'd turned, earlier, on Lily. On Jheun. On Alison. "Go home and have a good sleep, Ed," the man said softly. "Al's waiting and it's late. It's a new year, and you still have a lot of work to do. Don't you?"
Ed regarded him in silence a moment longer. At last he returned the smiled. "Yeah," he nodded. "I do. I'm not done yet." He opened the car door and stepped out onto the walk in front of the dormitory steps.
"Sleep well, Ed."
"You too, colonel. And…" That lump in his throat again. "Thanks. Thanks for…everything."
He stood on the walk, listening to the snow squeak under the tires of the car as it drove away, the snow continuing to fall, silently, on his hair and shoulders. Even after the vehicle had turned out of the drive and he heard it accelerate as it vanished through the gate, he remained as he was in the oval of light from the lamps on either side of the doors. Standing and thinking.
As the presents had been passed around and opened tonight, Madam Chris had apologized that they didn't have one for him. But he knew better now. He was quite sure he'd been given his present already. Six years ago.
And man – he suddenly realized – it was cold out here! What was he doing, standing outside and letting himself freeze like this? The colonel was right, he needed to get some sleep, and then get right back to work. Always, of course, stopping sometimes just to have a little fun.
Ed unlocked the front door of the dorm and hesitated one last time, turning back and lifting his face to watch the snow whisper its way down from the sky. What a night.
Heck of a way to start a new year, he thought.