Ed woke up sometime in the afternoon. He was warm and comfortable. His face was buried in the green sofa cushions and his own coat had been thrown over him like a blanket. The room was quiet and still, peaceful. The only sounds that Ed could hear were the distant voices of soldiers and vehicles in the yard outside and the faint scratching of a pen against paper. Ed would have gone back to sleep except that he noticed that Hawkeye's desk was empty, and the studious sound of paperwork being completed, which usually came from her area, was in fact coming from across the room.
Roy Mustang was sitting at his desk, dark head bowed, pen in hand. The bottle of moonshine was still in plain sight but had been moved to the corner of the colonel's desk.
Mustang didn't look up when Ed shifted on the sofa. He didn't look up when Ed pushed his coat back and sat up. At first he was grateful for the lack of attention. It gave him time to pull his confused, sleep-muddled thoughts together and smooth his hair and clothes into a somewhat presentable state. Still the colonel kept his eyes on his work.
After a few minutes of being ignored Ed started to wonder if he was beneath the colonel's notice or if paperwork just required that much concentration.
Finally he cleared his throat and said, "You asked to see me, sir?" in a gravelly voice.
"Fullmetal," the colonel said. He set down his pen. Then he laced his fingers together over his work and looked across his desk at Ed. His movements were calculated, deliberate, but when his eyes finally rested on Ed, something faltered. A window opened, then slammed shut again before Ed could see what was on the other side. "Please come here."
Mustang's voice was so serious that Ed obeyed without thinking. He rose slowly and closed the distance between the couch and the desk, feeling as if he were moving through water.
"Have a seat."
There was a chair in front of Mustang's desk that had never, to Ed's knowledge, been there before.
Ed sat. His eyes flicked side-to-side like a cornered animal.
The colonel rested his elbows on his desk and brought his laced fingers up to his chin. He looked at Ed over the top of them. When their eyes met, something like pity clouded the colonel's face before he was able to school it into military neutrality.
"I owe you an apology," Mustang told him. At the same time Ed said, "I'm sorry," like the words tasted bad.
Ed took advantage of the colonel's brief shocked silence. He continued, "I hope you don't think that I had anything to do with you getting run out of town. I didn't."
"Hmm," the colonel said, which could have meant anything.
"So… I'm sorry about that."
The colonel put a hand up. "You say it wasn't your fault and I believe you. From what I understood you weren't in any shape to follow orders anyway."
It was strange to hear the sheriff's words echoed by the colonel. If it hadn't been for Mustang's somber tone Ed would have thought the colonel was messing with him.
"So you actually came after me…" Ed said, speaking more to himself than to the colonel.
"Is that so hard to believe?"
"No… " Ed said, but he didn't sound convincing, not even to himself.
Mustang made a vaguely offended "Hmph" sound and crossed his arms over his chest. "The welfare of my subordinates is one of my top priorities," he said formally.
Subordinates. He made it sound so clinical.
"If it was so important why didn't you just use your flames to scare the doctor into letting you in?"
Ed was sure he saw sweat forming on the colonel's brow.
"Don't think I didn't consider it. I doubt that would have done much to convince the doctor that I was a reasonable man, though."
"It was raining, wasn't it?"
"Hmm," Mustang said.
Ed felt some of the tension drain out of the room. He gave a brief, dry chuckle. "Huh. Must have driven you nuts, not being able to keep an eye on me all that time…"
If Ed had chosen to look up just a moment later he might have missed the stunned expression on Mustang's face. The colonel covered it quickly.
Ed looked down and tried to cover for himself in a small, embarrassed voice, "…seeing as how you always seem to know about everything that we do, I mean."
"It was definitely frustrating not having any information about the two of you. I understood that you were very ill." He looked away and said, in a voice like he was answering the phone or requesting a file from accounting, "I was worried."
Ed felt his cheeks becoming red. The carpet was suddenly very interesting. "Yeah, well, you shouldn't have been. I was fine."
"Hmm. That is not how I understood the situation. As your commanding officer your welfare is my responsibility, and I take that duty very seriously. I shouldn't have sent you on that mission when I knew that you were sick."
"Hey, I made that decision on my own. I didn't have to take the mission. You even said so."
"Still, I should not have put you in that position in the first place."
"You couldn't have known what would happen. Hell, I thought it was the flu just like everybody else did."
Mustang pinched the bridge of his nose like he had a headache or his eyes were bothering him. After a deep breath he said, "Fullmetal, I put you at risk by suggestion this mission. It was an error in judgment on my part and I apologize."
Ed countered, "You can't make all of my decisions for me. You didn't stick me outside in the rain and you didn't make me sick in the first place!"
"Dammit, Fullmetal, stop arguing with me and accept my apology!"
"No! What do you have to apologize for? It was my damn fault!"
"Because you're my responsibility, that's why!"
But that was the point: Ed wasn't his responsibility, not when it came to civilian matters.
There was a silent moment during which they both took deep breaths and collected themselves.
"So," Ed said on an exhalation that sounded too ragged for a healthy soldier, "Does this mean that you're not kicking me out." He couldn't quite keep the hopefulness out of his voice.
"Kicking you out?"
"Of the military."
"I have no plans to do so at this time," Mustang answered diplomatically. He raised a questioning eyebrow, "Why? Did you do something destructive or illegal in Rhuel that I don't know about?"
Ed had to think for a moment. "No." Not that he'd mention it if he had. "I thought that… because I was so sick- "
"Stop right there. I spoke to Alphonse about your medical needs before you left Rhuel. You'll stay in East City under the care of the company physician until you've made a full recovery… and I do expect you to make a full recovery. Understood?"
Ed nodded, mouth dry.
"Is there something else?"
"I disobeyed orders," Ed confessed. "You told me not to act without reporting in, and I went after Leon Mueller anyway. Then I let him go."
Ed looked up and found Mustang actually smiling.
"What's so funny?"
"I had a feeling that we weren't dealing with a typical criminal and I knew you would be able to find a solution to the problem on your own, and you did. I gave you that order assuming that you would disobey it."
So the bastard had been manipulating him all along.
"Why are you upset?"
"I'm not upset," Ed snarled.
"Do you want to leave the military?" Mustang asked him frankly.
"No!" Ed's answer was immediate and emphatic.
"Alright then. We're both in agreement. You don't want to leave and I don't want you to leave."
Maybe there was a part of Ed that had longed to be cut loose from the military, because when the colonel spoke, Ed felt like the walls were a little closer, the air a little thinner. He felt trapped, but this was the bargain he had struck. This was what he had agreed to and there was no turning back. If the colonel was looking for verification of that, then he could have it.
"That's right," Ed responded.
The military's leash might be heavy at times, but there was comfort in that weight.
"Let me ask you a question, Ed."
"Like you need my permission."
Mustang pretended not to have heard him. "Have you ever been sorry that I came to Resembool when I did?"
"What? Why are you asking?" Ed asked suspiciously.
Roy Mustang drew a deep breath, "Do you ever wish I hadn't shown up when I did? Are you sorry that I pointed you in the direction of the military?"
It had always seemed pointless to Ed to consider things that hadn't happened. Their dad left, their mom died, he and Al had tried human transmutation and failed. Those things weren't going to change, so sitting around moaning about what could have been was a waste of time.
"What are you talking about?" Ed asked in an offended tone, "It's not like you can go back and change anything."
But maybe he was being hypocritical, because wasn't that the point of his and Al's mission: to get back what they'd lost? To erase the mistake that they'd made in trying to bring their mother back? No. That mistake could not be erased, even if they somehow got rid of the physical evidence. It would always be there, inside him, the knowledge of the sin that they'd committed, that he'd convinced his brother to commit.
"I provided you with an opportunity, but I sometimes think that by doing so I stole a piece of your childhood from you. I wonder if you think the same thing."
"You didn't steal anything. I would have figured it out. I would have come to the military on my own," Ed said. He filled his voice with determination, but the truth was that without Mustang's guidance Ed would have had a very difficult time finding his way to the path that he and Al were on now. "Besides," he continued, "you can't steal something that's already been taken away."
"Hmm. What an eloquent way to put it. You could have been a poet."
"Yeah, a one-armed one-legged poet, with a walking, talking suit of armor for a brother," Ed said, and the sad realization of what might have become of them had Mustang not interfered in their lives dawned on him. "Thank you… " Ed struggled with what to say next, "Don't ask me to be more specific than that, just… thank you."
"Accept my apology and we'll call it even."
Ed sucked in a breath. "Fine."
"You win, alright?"
"I'm not sure what you think I won."
"I accept your damn apology!" Ed snapped.
Mustang's mouth curved in a smug little smile. "You're welcome, Fullmetal." Then the colonel's smile faded and his pressed his lips together as if in thought.
After a few awkward beats Ed asked, "So, do you like your gift?"
The colonel appeared distracted. It took him a second to respond. "My-? This?" he asked, indicating the bottle on his desk.
"It's from Mrs. Bosch. It's a thank-you gift for sending us to fix her porch."
"Oh," the colonel said uncertainly. "That was very kind of her."
Mustang slid the bottle closer to himself, eyeing the contents of the bottle. With a gloved hand he worked the stopper free of the bottle's neck and took a cautious sniff. His eyes widened and Ed could have sworn that for an instant the hair on his head stood on end.
Mustang replaced the stopper and coughed politely into his fist.
"She said it's an old family cold remedy," Ed explained.
Mustang looked vaguely horrified. He asked, "Did she make you drink any of this?"
Ed shrugged. "A little."
Very deliberately and with an expression that Ed didn't quite understand, Mustang removed the bottle from his desktop and placed it in the top drawer. Then he locked the drawer.
"So… are we done here, colonel?" Ed asked impatiently. Clearly he wasn't going to get a pat on the back or a 'job well done' or even a 'glad you're not dead' from the man. But what the hell did he expect? It wasn't like they were friends or anything.
Ed's eyes stung. He blinked.
Oh for the love of… why the hell should that upset him?
"Not quite," Mustang said.
With the bottle gone there was only one thing remaining on the colonel's desk. It was an official-looking document, trimmed in silver leaf, with spaces at the bottom for three signatures and a state seal.
Mustang slid the sheet of paper across his desk toward Ed.
"This last assignment of yours gave me a few things to think about."
Ed picked up the sheet of paper carefully, as if it might burst into flame at the slightest mishandling.
He began to read.
Most of the words on the document were legal-speak: party of the first part, blah blah blah, but the further Ed read the more he came to understand what it was he was reading. What he didn't understand was what Mustang wanted him to do with this.
Mustang explained, "I'd like you to put someone down as a guardian, even if it's just on paper."
Ed's gut reaction was to refuse, but then he realized that there was a loophole.
"Fine," Ed said casually. "Al can be my guardian. I'll be his."
Mustang shook his head. "It has to be an adult. Someone over eighteen years of age."
Ed scanned the document. The colonel was right.
"Can it be anyone?"
"Preferably someone that you know and have frequent contact with. Someone whom you trust to make decisions for you when you can't make them for yourself."
Ed tried to think of someone whom he trusted completely, who would act in his best interests. He had his brother, who was too young, Granny Pinako, who was too far away, and Winry, who was both. Everyone he saw on a regular basis was in the military: Hughes, Hawkeye, Breda, Falman, Havoc... It wasn't as if he didn't trust them, but if Ed's best interests were ever at odds with what the military wanted, he couldn't rely on them to choose his best interests over the military's.
Ed looked away from the paper. "Sorry, colonel. I don't know anybody like that."
He got up without being dismissed.
"Fullmetal, military life can be dangerous. From here on your assignments will only become more difficult. If you became injured or ill, there could easily be another incident like this one."
Ed stopped and turned. "What's wrong with the way this one turned out?"
Mustang looked offended, and for the life of him Ed couldn't figure out why. "Things turned out alright this time, but you can't always trust those who happen to be around to make decisions that are in your best interests."
"I'll take my chances," Ed said stubbornly.
Mustang sighed and rubbed his temple with two fingers. "Ed, I think that it's time that you gave some practical consideration to what might happen if things had gone differently."
"What do you mean?" Ed asked suspiciously.
"If you hadn't survived, or if you had but needed to be hospitalized for a very long time. Who would look after you? Who would cover your expenses?"
In a small voice Ed asked, "Wouldn't the military…?"
"In the short term, yes, but let's say that you were injured in a more permanent way. It happens. You know it does. Remember that there are worse things than dying."
Ed tried hard not to imagine himself as one of the living corpses he'd seen in hospitals, soldiers with head wounds so severe that they were reduced to the level of babies, needing feeding and changing, unable to speak, unable to move, completely reliant on others just to live.
Mustang went on, "How would Al get his body back without access to the military's resources?"
Ed froze, trying to see the threat in Mustang's words, in his body language. All that he sensed was a cold sort of practicality. Of course if Ed weren't around any more Al wouldn't have access to Ed's research budget.
Ed didn't plan on dying, not before he returned Al to his body, not if he could help it. He stood up straight, determined, at attention. His expression hardened. "Al's smart. He'd find a way to get by without me."
"I see, and how is that?" the colonel inquired.
"He can work, perform alchemy. He doesn't need to sleep. He doesn't need to eat…" as Ed spoke the horror of what he was saying sank in: his brother, alone, without Ed to watch his back, unable to settle down for fear that someone would uncover his secret. How long could Al exist like that? How long before he encountered someone who would want to take him apart for the secrets that his body held?
Ed was lost in thought, adrift and unable to remember what he'd been saying. Mustang seemed to know what he was going on inside his head and rescued him. "Al won't be able to stay in one place for very long. That will make earning a living very difficult. Travel and research can be expensive."
"We have friends in Resembool. They'll help Al if he needs it."
"That seems like heavy burden to lay at the Rockbells' feet."
It disturbed Ed on a fundamental level when Mustangs spoke their names. He felt like the colonel was using his intimate knowledge of their sin against him. It conjured up the memory of a time when Ed had been broken and bleeding, lying helpless on a mattress in the Rockbell home. But even then he had been determined, oh so determined not to give up.
Ed said, "Al could join the military, become a state alchemist."
"He's a suit of armor, Edward," Mustang pointed out, infuriatingly calm.
"Why are we talking about this?" Ed hissed. "Nothing is going to happen! I'm not going to die! I'm not going to leave my brother!"
"Your mother died. I'm sure that was the last thing that she intended, to leave you boys on your own."
Ed's chest physically ached as if the colonel punched him.
"You bastard," Ed said, low and dangerous, gripping the back of the chair he'd been sitting on so hard that the knuckles on his left hand turned white. He tipped his head forward so that his bangs would mask the tears that were forming in his eyes, but the thickness of his voice betrayed him anyway. "Why are you doing this to me?"
Mustang held up his hands in a placating gesture, like Ed was some kind of skittish wild animal. "You're smart, Fullmetal, but you still think you're invincible. You haven't lived long enough to find out that you're not."
Ed was fuming. He felt heat rise to his cheeks. He looked up, not caring if the colonel saw how red his eyes were. He crossed his left arm over his chest and rubbed where his automail right arm met the stump of his shoulder. "I know I'm not invincible. I didn't need a stupid chest cold to remind me."
Mustang chose his next words carefully. "I apologize, Ed. You and your brother have been through a lot more than most people your age. But that being said I still think that you're putting too much faith in your own abilities. It's grisly, having to consider your own mortality, but that is part of being an adult and a soldier. As I said before the welfare of my subordinates is one of my top priorities. Most of the soldiers who serve under me have families, homes, and people outside of the military that they can rely on. At the very least they have a will, but not you."
"A will is a will. You're talking about something else."
"In your case there's a lot more gray area that needs covering."
Ed looked down, concentrating on the carpet. He stayed that way for a long time, watching the pattern grow blurry and listening to the roaring sound of his own labored breathing.
Finally, Mustang grew tired of waiting for him to move. "Listen, Edward, as far as the state is concerned you and your brother are emancipated minors. You make decisions for yourself. Your guardian only has whatever rights and responsibilities you choose to give them."
"Guardian…" Ed said slowly, tasting the word.
"You have a problem with the title? How about medical proxy? Power of attorney. It's up to you what to call it."
"And they only help with what I say? They don't get to tell me where to go or what to do?"
"You don't get enough of that in the military?" Mustang asked wryly.
Ed didn't respond to the joke. "And if I just want help with the hard stuff, like dealing with hospitals and making sure that Al has money…"
"Write it down. Be as specific as you want," Mustang invited him. "You can even use my pen."
Mustang held the writing utensil out toward him.
Ed reached for it, and then hesitated. "I don't want anyone to do anything that will stop Al and me from getting our bodies back… but I can't write that down, can I?" Ed realized.
"I wouldn't advise it."
"This won't do us much good, then."
"You'll just have to choose someone who knows your goals, and then trust them."
Trust. Why was that so hard?
Ed took Mustang's pen with his left hand. His fingers were shaking.
A thought occurred to Ed. "This is a lot of responsibility. What if I pick someone and they won't sign?"
"Adults are used to responsibility," Mustang explained.
But Ed still hesitated, pen poised above the paper.
"They'll sign," Mustang assured him. "Just put a name down and they'll sign. I'll make sure of it."
"I'll probably never need this, right? I mean it's just going to get buried in some file somewhere unless… you know."
"That's the general idea, Fullmetal."
Ed took a breath and then he pressed the pen against the document and began to write. He made his strokes slowly and deliberately, with the care of someone who wasn't born left-handed.
Ed pressed the pen hard into the paper, so hard that he left a faint impression of the name in the surface of the desk. The name stayed, even after Colonel Mustang transferred back to Central and another Colonel took his place, even after that colonel served his time and left as well, and the colonel after him replaced the office furniture and donated the desk to a public school, where it sat in the principal's office and took up an inordinate amount of space. On the rare occasion that the desk was clear of paperwork the principal could see the name etched on the surface, but she dismissed it as vandalism, something scratched by a mischievous student during an unsupervised moment. Out of curiosity she eventually checked the school roster, but couldn't find any record of a "Roy Mustang".
In the present, in a spacious office above the parade grounds at Eastern headquarters, Edward Elric slid the signed document across the desk and Colonel Roy Mustang accepted it. Ed was on his feet and headed to retrieve his coat before the colonel could read the name he'd written down. When he did, he smiled.
Ed stopped, but he didn't turn around.
"My hope is that we never need this document."
"Uh huh, me to," Ed agreed off-handedly, reaching for his coat.
There was a pause.
Then the colonel said, with obvious difficulty, "I'm glad that you're alright. Welcome back."
Ed had never been so relieved that the colonel couldn't see his face and would never know the elation that those few words stirred in him.
"Thanks," Ed said stiffly.
"Al is waiting for you at the dorms. Get some rest, and then report to the infirmary in the morning." Mustang's voice was accompanied by the sound of unnecessary paper shuffling.
"Yes sir," Ed replied.
But he didn't turn around to salute, and Mustang didn't make him.
As Ed left the colonel's office he felt like a weight had been lifted off of his shoulders, something he hadn't even been aware of until it was gone.
Thank you for reading and a big thanks to those of you who have left me feedback along the way.
If you enjoyed this story, please let me know. If you didn't, well, you can let me know that too, just in a nice way.
Thank you again.