Chapter 9: In The End
"Excuse me, miss? Are you the head nurse? " Thus addressed, a matronly woman glanced up from the chart she had been reading to appraise the young man in front of her.
"Yes, that's right," Nurse Margaret responded, instantly intrigued. It was the golden-haired boy who'd brought in that handsome young colonel just a short while ago; the one they'd told her had been injured in the middle of some heroic rescue operation. She didn't know the whole story behind it all, but the night was young yet. Setting the chart down on the countertop, she fastened her ice blue eyes on the child before her, giving him her full attention. "What can I help you with, dear?"
"It's about Colonel Mustang, miss. They said I should talk to you…You see, he's my superior officer, and I'm really worried about him. He only got hurt because he was protecting me," Edward paused for dramatic effect, and fastened his luminous golden eyes on hers. With a pleading expression that rivaled Black Hayate's 'please feed me' face, Ed continued with a slight tremor in his voice: "I—I just want to make sure he doesn't trick any of the nurses into letting him out before he's completely healed. You see…he doesn't like hospitals much, and he can be really charming when he wants to be, and sometimes…well, sometimes he flirts with his nurses, and convinces them to let him out early," his words tumbled out eagerly, and he leaned closer to the nurse. "So what I wanted to ask you was, will you please promise to keep your eye on him, and make sure none of the other nurses let him check himself out too soon?" Ed finished earnestly.
Margaret melted like wax.
"Of course, my dear. I will personally make sure that none of my nurses fall for your colonel's little tricks, so you can rest assured. He'll be released as soon as the doctor says so, and not a single minute before!" she vowed, tossing her ash blonde hair. "It's wonderful to see a young man express such devoted concern for his superior officer! So many young people today are just so flippant and disrespectful of their elders…" and patting his hand in a motherly way, Nurse Margaret marched off to the nursing station to issue orders that Colonel Mustang's manifold charms be completely disregarded or else. Ed turned to greet Hawkeye, who stood smirking behind him.
"I've created a monster," she laughed. "Excellent work, Edward. I knew none of these women could resist the puppy dog eyes."
"Not a one, Lieutenant," Ed grinned back up at her, triumphant. "Every last one of 'em went for it hook, line and sinker."
"Wonderful. All right, so between you and Al, we've talked to all the nurses that are on shift right now, and I'm pretty sure your head nurse will take care of instructing the rest, given that little performance. I've just finished talking to the doctor," Hawkeye continued, "And Alphonse just went down to talk to the security guards to ask them to be on the lookout in case the colonel tries to slip out on his own."
"I can't think of anything we've missed…"Edward mused. "So now Colonel Mustang should have no choice but to stay put and recuperate." Hawkeye smiled fondly at the young alchemist as they walked together back into the colonel's private room.
"We can't have Colonel Mustang wandering off on his own again, that's for certain," she sighed, settling into one of the uncomfortable chairs by Mustang's bedside.
Ed strolled over to the window and opened the curtains so that he could look out at the dark night sky. Hawkeye knew he would never say it aloud, but she could tell that Edward really had been worried about the colonel, just as he'd told that nurse. Mustang could've gotten himself killed back there. She watched her sleeping colonel as his chest rose and fell with his every breath, and tried not to think about what would've happened if they'd been just a few minutes later in finding the right warehouse.
"He's very lucky the crazy one wanted to learn flame alchemy, or they probably would've just killed him right there and skipped town," she finally said softly, breaking the silence. Ed growled slightly and crossed the room again to drop into the chair beside her.
"That crazy, perverted bastard," he snarled vehemently, his face darkening. Hawkeye looked up sharply, surprised by his tone. There was a story here.
"Edward? I meant to ask you earlier…what did that alchemist say to you back there that prompted you to bind him in steel cords? I thought that Second Lieutenant Crewe had them both covered; that neither one was going anywhere. You looked pretty upset when I looked up next. What happened?" Edward looked away, staring in the direction of the window.
"I suppose you could say he…he made a pass at me. Said I was pretty, and then…" Ed fidgeted, clearly uncomfortable with this topic. "He, er…propositioned me. I suppose I overacted a little, but what that nasty creep said…even Crewe was totally shocked by it," Edward mumbled, a little defensively. A shiver ran down Hawkeye's spine as she wondered how explicit the man had been if his words had even shaken an experienced soldier like Lieutenant Crewe. Then her eyes widened in realization.
"So that's what Mustang meant," she murmured, half to herself. Ed looked up again at that, meeting her eyes at last. "Right before he passed out," she explained before he could ask, "Colonel Mustang told me that David wanted you…I wasn't sure what he meant by that, but it was the excuse he gave me for running off on his own; he was trying to divert David's attention away from you. I assumed at the time he meant for the slave trade, but apparently his designs were a bit more... personal in nature."
"Then, that bastard really did get hurt because he was trying to protect me," Edward said softly. "He got the creep to follow him so that he wouldn't come after me. And I didn't even notice. Damn it," he huffed out a breath, an almost-laugh. "Now I feel guilty for letting him walk off like that, without even considering that he might be putting himself at risk for me. I guess this means I owe him one now, huh? That jerk," he grumbled. Hawkeye rested one slender hand very lightly on his back.
"That's just the sort of man he is, Edward. Colonel Mustang has always been willing to risk his own life to protect his subordinates." They were quiet for a moment longer before Hawkeye spoke again. "Anyway. He's still a reckless idiot, and he'll be hearing about it as soon as he's conscious again. Couldn't hurt to deflate that giant ego of his just a bit," she declared was rewarded with a startled laugh.
"You really are a scary woman, Lieutenant," Edward said with a bright smile.
They were both still laughing when Al returned from his errand. He convinced them to go back to the hotel to get some sleep while he watched over Mustang, as it was unlikely he would wake before morning anyway.
Mustang woke up just before dawn the next morning, and learned from his sentinel that he was obliged to spend two whole days in the hospital. In addition to numerous relatively minor cuts and abrasions, (including that nasty and very deep gash on his arm), he had a few bruised ribs, a sprained ankle, and a nasty knot on the back of his head. His doctor was extremely concerned that he'd suffered two head wounds in the space of a week, and she wanted to keep him for observation just to be sure everything was all right, Al explained.
While they waited for Lieutenant Hawkeye and Edward to come back, Al filled Colonel Mustang in on what had happened the previous evening after he'd passed out.
Hawkeye had stayed with her colonel to wait for a medical team to arrive, while the others had fanned out and searched the adjacent warehouses. They'd found the missing girls right away, though Nigel and David had kept only the prettiest ones, since they were planning to open up a brothel as soon as they'd moved to the next town. The girls had all been drugged and kept in makeshift cages like animals. None had been seriously harmed or sexually assaulted as of yet, though, and were only cold, hungry, disoriented, and frightened. Only six victims had actually been sold as slaves to the Xingese traders. Hughes was tracking them all down even now, and was making arrangements to return them to their families. All six had been purchased by wealthy noble clans as household servants, and so negotiations for their return shouldn't be too difficult.
As Al finished this unofficial report, Second Lieutenant Crewe dropped by the hospital with his partner, in order to take down Mustang's official statement for the finalized reports to send in to Hughes. He'd had some good news—he'd learned from a friend of his who worked in a highly placed general's office (whom he refused to name lest she get in trouble) that commendations had been placed in all of their official files, praising them for solving the case so quickly, and for bringing such a violent criminal to justice.
Hawkeye and Edward had arrived shortly thereafter, and Hawkeye lost no time in delivering the dreaded lecture about how foolish he'd been, allowing Ed to chime in a few times with his "stop treating me like a child" rants ("What kind of naïve idiot do you think I am anyway, you bastard? Like I'd just go skipping off arm in arm with the first creep who offered me candy or something? Give me a freakin' break! And don't go thinking I owe you for anything; I could've fought them just fine on my own! In fact, I could've beaten them on my own, since my alchemy doesn't depend on my not getting WET!") Lt. Crewe and his partner had sniggered into their sleeves, not bothering to hide their mirth. Al had been torn between his own amusement and horror over their blatant disrespect for a superior officer, but on catching sight of Hawkeye's mischievous grin, he'd finally given in to the former, his gentle laughter echoing a bit in his armor.
The yelling and laughter finally drew the attention of the nurse, who threatened to throw them all out if they didn't keep it down so the injured man could rest. At her appearance, Mustang had instantly turned on the charm. She'd threatened to sedate him, which had set the whole group off laughing again.
Finding the entire nursing staff impervious to his allure, Mustang was baffled. No amount of cajoling or threatening would change Hawkeye's stance on the subject of getting out of the hospital, either. It was only much later that Mustang realized that the Elric brothers had teamed up with Lieutenant Hawkeye to beguile all of the nurses before he'd ever even regained consciousness.
At last, the whole group had decided to go out for something to eat and left Mustang to rest. Hawkeye, of course, stayed behind to make sure the colonel didn't try anything in her absence, and so Edward promised to bring her something back. Once the others had filed out of the room, laughing and joking all the while, Mustang sighed heavily in relief. Hawkeye waited until all the footsteps had died away before moving to sit on the edge of his hospital bed and reaching for his hand.
"Don't ever scare me like that again, sir."
Anyone else might have been surprised by the trembling passion in her voice, but Mustang knew all too well the depth of emotion that Hawkeye hid under her stoic professionalism on a daily basis. He laced his fingers through hers.
"I'm sorry, Lieutenant. I honestly couldn't think of any other way. If you'd seen the way that man was leering at Fullmetal…I just kept thinking about what happened to all those young women…" he trailed off, shaking his head in disgust. His face had turned quite pale, and Riza knew how exhausted he must be from all the excitement of the day. He'd probably fall back asleep soon, she thought, her eyes softening.
"Promise me that you won't do something like that again?" she murmured, brushing his hair back from his forehead. He grabbed her hand and brought it gently to his lips before answering.
"I promise that I won't ever let myself get captured while in the middle of an investigation by using myself as bait to lure a dangerous and completely bat-shit crazy alchemist away from one of my subordinates with whom he had an unhealthy fixation, ever again," he smirked, closing his eyes.
Hawkeye swatted his good arm lightly, but she couldn't help but chuckle in spite of herself.
"I suppose that will have to suffice. Now, you really should get some sleep, sir," she admonished as he fought to keep his eyes open.
"Mmm. Will you stay with me, Riza?" he slurred sleepily.
"Always, Roy," she whispered. And she pressed her lips to his forehead as he closed his eyes again with a soft smile.
Two Days Later
By the time they'd reached Risembool, the rough patch-up job on Ed's automail leg had finally reached its limit. He'd limped all the way from the train station, steadfastly refusing to be carried or to even consider bumming a ride from any of the passing villagers with vehicles. Mustang, as obstinate as his young subordinate, limped right alongside the teen on his still-swollen sprained ankle. Alphonse and Hawkeye followed a few steps behind them, exchanging exasperated looks with every muffled curse as one or the other stubborn state alchemist jarred or tweaked something along the rough road.
As they drew nearer to the Rockbell home, Al grew visibly nervous.
"Brother, maybe you should let me carry you just this last little bit…maybe she won't be as mad if she thinks you're seriously injured…" he'd timidly suggested.
Edward had scoffed and tossed his head proudly. Mustang, thinking of the wrench and wondering exactly how good the young woman's aim really was, suddenly decided maybe he needed Hawkeye's help after all. He let the two brothers go on ahead, arguing in hushed voices all the way, and leaned against his lieutenant as the pretty farmhouse loomed nearer.
"You're just afraid she'll miss him and hit you, aren't you?" she'd murmured with a grin, arm around his waist. "Coward."
But her playful grin quickly disappeared as a bloodcurdling shriek rent the peaceful quiet of the country lane. Colonel and Lieutenant both froze in their tracks, absolutely shocked and clinging to each other reflexively.
"WHAT THE HELL HAVE YOU DONE TO MY PRECIOUS AUTOMAIL? WHAT? WHAT DO YOU MEAN, IT'S BROKEN?"
They could see Edward on the road ahead, doubled over and clutching his head. Al was saying something in a high pitched, pleading tone, his hands outstretched in supplication, hovering over his injured brother. And a pretty little blonde was stomping over to the pair of them with a murderous look on her face. Before either Mustang or Hawkeye had decided how to react, a woman's voice spoke up from somewhere near Hawkeye's hip.
"Trust me; it's better to just leave them to it. Why don't you two come on inside, I'll make us some tea and get something to put on that ankle of yours," Pinako said serenely, puffing her pipe. Ed had leapt to his feet by this time, and he and Winry were both yelling now, pink in the face and gesturing wildly. A distressed Alphonse was still trying to reason with them both while preventing Winry from whacking Edward again with the wrench. "You'll be staying the night here, of course," Pinako continued placidly, walking past the trio without so much as a glance in their direction, "I'm making beef stew for supper," she added as she disappeared inside the house.
Mustang turned to Hawkeye, dumfounded.
"Think it's too late to make a break for it, Lieutenant? I bet we could outrun the wrench."
"The next train to Eastern HQ doesn't come through until tomorrow, or I'd be tempted, sir," Hawkeye replied, resigned. She put away the gun Mustang hadn't even noticed she'd drawn. At that exact moment, Winry realized that she had guests aside from Edward and Alphonse.
"Lieutenant Hawkeye? Oh, it is you! I didn't realize you were here as well; please forgive my rudeness for not greeting you before now. It's lovely to see you again!" she cried, bounding away from a flabbergasted Edward to grasp Hawkeye's hands in her own. "And you too, Colonel Mustang! Please come in, both of you. Will you be staying for a while?"She addressed her last comment to Hawkeye, and continued chattering away as happily and innocently as any young girl.
All thoughts of retribution for busted automail masterpieces apparently banished, she led the older woman into the house. And Riza followed her calmly, without betraying any surprise at Winry's sudden shift from enraged weapon-wielding harpy to cheerful country maiden greeting an old acquaintance. All three men stared after them in shock.
Alphonse recovered first.
"Why have we never thought of bringing along another person to distract Winry, brother? Did you see how quickly she reacted to Lieutenant Hawkeye? That was amazing…"
"Hawkeye is pretty amazing," Mustang agreed affectionately. "And a great person to have nearby when you're in a rough spot, that's for sure. After all, she's one of my most precious subordinates."
With that, he followed the women into the house, still limping a little on his sore ankle. Edward rubbed the lump on his head and trotted after him with a shrug. Al stood outside for just a moment longer.
"Precious, huh?" And his eyes glowed bright.
A.N. I'm sorry I took a little longer than usual in posting this final chapter, but I was having a hard time letting it go. Bittersweet moment for me…but I have finally finished my first multiple chapter fic! :D Hurrah! I had a lot of fun writing this, and I really hope you have enjoyed reading it! Thank you for sticking with me until the end, everyone! I deeply appreciate all the feedback, and I am most grateful for all of the reviews and story alerts and favorites. Until next time!