Sorry it's been a month since I last updated... But here's the fifth chapter, so I hope that makes up for it! XD
Disclaimer: I wish... :(
Dr. Knox wasn't particularly gentle when he pounded a loosely curled fist on the door twice. He never was very careful around Mustang; he was a cursed man, he knew it, and he knew that Mustang knew it. And that man could keep his lofty goals to himself—Knox just didn't care much anymore.
The door opened, revealing a rather haggard-looking Mustang. This was the tiredness that had brought about the stumbling of speech over the phone, although there was an air of pig-headed determination about him that Knox thought he liked—Mustang, with that look on him, would wrestle the devil himself into submission if he had to.
Dr. Knox stepped inside without bothering to wait for an invitation. Mustang stood to the side and let him enter without bothering to give one. The jaded doctor stopped after a few steps and took a drag on the cigar pinched between his teeth, then snuffed it out, tossing it away. In his experience, if he was being called as a doctor for something other than an autopsy, the residual smoke from his unfortunate habit was generally not appreciated.
"So what am I here for, Mustang? Other than a favor," he added sardonically, raising an eyebrow as he echoed Mustang's phrasing over the phone.
"I'll need to explain this to both of you," Mustang stated. "Come through here." He gestured absently to a short hallway to their left and led the way into a small living room with only one couch. There was a woman sitting there with dark hair pulled back in a ponytail and a medical bag by her feet, by which Knox identified her as a veterinarian.
"Dr. Knox, this Dr. Mercan," Mustang introduced politely. The veterinarian stood and held her hand out to Knox, who stared for a moment at the extended appendage and left her hanging there. She withdrew her hand as it became apparent that Dr. Knox wasn't going to shake it.
"Just call me Julia," she requested, and Knox grunted.
"I'm still Dr. Knox to you," he grumbled uncharitably. To her credit, Julia didn't flinch. Both doctors turned to Mustang for an explanation as to their presence.
"I'll start off by saying this is classified," Mustang began. "That's not to say this is strictly a military endeavor. Dr. Knox, you are familiar with the Elric brothers, are you not?"
The question must have been entirely for Julia's benefit, but Knox nodded anyway.
"This has more to do with Edward than with Alphonse, but the brothers being who they are…" Mustang let the sentence hang.
"Where one goes, the other follows," Knox agreed instinctively reaching up for his discarded cigar and then letting the hand fall back to his side when it only encountered air. "But I thought I heard something about the Fullmetal kid disappearing."
"We found him," Mustang said, putting both hands into his pocket as his shoulders lifted slightly in either a small shrug or a sigh. Knox noted that the comment was rather lackluster coming from an officer that would, and had, put himself in the line of fire for the sake of his subordinates. He turned back to Julia.
"You were on the chimera project for a short time, weren't you?"
Julia nodded. "Got kicked out soon enough," she said with a trace of sour resentment, "but yes."
Knox knew that Mustang had already known as much. He wouldn't ask a question like that if it would have had an answer he wasn't expecting. Indeed, he didn't look the least bit surprised, instead beckoning them both to the stairs.
"If you'll follow me."
The doctors both did. Knox was beginning to be quite curious of where this was going—Mustang paused in the hall just outside of a certain doorway, his hand on the doorknob, and opened his mouth to say something, but nothing seemed to be willing to come out. A glimmer of uncertainty showed briefly in Mustang's eyes, and then he was smoothly opening the door for Dr. Knox and Julia.
The veterinarian entered the room first, almost bouncing with energy and anticipation, but she froze just a few steps into the room.
"Oh dear," Julia breathed.
The sound was small and sad, and Julia's shoulders slumped noticeably. Knox leaned to the side to see around her head, but didn't miss the sorrowful look on Mustang's face, a haunted expression of regret. It became immediately clear to Knox why that was.
After all the things the Elrics had gotten themselves into—just the things he knew of, even, which probably wasn't even the half of them—Knox was inclined to say that they were the hardiest human beings he'd ever met. But this brought the horrors in their lives to a whole new level.
Classified? It had to be. Human doctor? Probably necessary. Veterinarian who'd worked on the chimera project? Quite the resource.
Mustang brushed past the two dumbstruck doctors and made his way to the golden bird boy staring at them with wide eyes. The man moved carefully, gingerly, as if the wings and beak implied this boy was ready to take flight at the slightest provocation.
"Edward," he said quietly, kneeling in front of the chimera and locking eyes with him. "Can you understand me?"
For a moment there was no response, and then a deliberate nod. Julia gave a quick gasp that Knox didn't quite understand, though he caught that there was definitely some underlying meaning to the statement, judging by the gravity Mustang said it with. Slowly, Julia crept forward to where Mustang was kneeling and crouched in front of Edward as Mustang sidled away to make room for her.
"Hey, buddy—Edward, was it?" Julia paused, waiting for a reaction, but didn't seem particularly disappointed when she didn't get one. "I bet you're having a hard time there, aren'tcha?" Still the golden head was still, eyes almost disturbingly blank. "Does anything hurt?" This time she really waited for an answer, but if anything the chimera withdrew more. His wings hunched slightly and his severely mismatched legs stirred restlessly at the edge of the bed.
"Ed, do you understand her?" Roy asked softly, but firmly. Ed hesitated and nodded timidly.
Julia tried again. "Does anything hurt?" She tilted her head slightly to the side and gave the chimera a friendly smile.
Ed slowly shook his head.
"That's good," Julia supplied.
Knox stared at the odd little scene and couldn't hold back the expletive that came from his lips. "What the… that you, Ed?"
The chimera looked over him and Dr. Knox was treated to straight-on view of those eyes, terribly empty. Knox's stomach dropped and he swallowed thickly. "Hey, kid, you in there? Anyone home?"
"Edward," Mustang said softly. "You've met Dr. Knox. Do you remember him?"
Ed stared at Knox, cocked his head to the side, and stared some more. Finally, a tiny jerk of a nod. Roy looked surprisingly satisfied at the tiny acknowledgement.
"That's good." Mustang looked over to Knox and beckoned him over; the older doctor shoved his hands in his pockets and obligingly walked over to Ed, who was following him curiously with his eyes.
"He understands, but he won't speak," Mustang told them. His voice was somewhat strained, and Knox had to wonder how much pain that man was trying to hide. Julia, on the other hand, looked delighted.
"I told them!" She exclaimed quietly. The veterinarian made a little flailing gesture towards Mustang, like she wanted to throw her hands up in the air in either exasperation or excitement or maybe a mixture of both. "I mean, I wasn't positive, but just the little cues—they don't really respond most of the time, but it you're looking you can see when they do. It's like they're trying to pretend they don't understand, but slip up sometimes."
Ed blinked at her and clacked his beak, looking somewhat upset. Mustang tensed, ready for the chaos that look always seemed to follow that look, but his eyes held a strange recognition for Julia that appeared to be keeping the panic at bay.
"Oh, you're fine, little buddy," Julia promised. She ruffled his hair fondly, a gesture that Ed seemed to appreciate. She paused and scrutinized the chimera for a moment, and then her back straightened abruptly. She swiveled to face Mustang.
"This is 79, isn't it? I gave him a checkup once." She made a face. "Of course, Fluegal's personal assistant always thinks he knows best, the idiot."
Ed grew even more still, frozen in place, and Mustang gave Julia a curious glance. "What do you mean by that?"
"I mean," Julia emphasized with her hands splayed in front of her—she did seem to talk with her hands quite a bit—"that he tampers with the information! I'm sure that if you have Ed here you've also gotten Fluegal's file folder. Please tell me you didn't feed him birdseed," Julia begged.
"Definitely not," Mustang said wryly. "It's nice to see I didn't put my mistrust in the wrong place. The reason you two are here is to tell me his condition. I don't trust Fluegal's files to do that."
"Oh, that'll be easy," Julia dismissed. "I did his first cursory checkup just before they kicked me out for railing on Fluegal's assistant for messing with the information." She rose up and sat on the bed next to the chimera, flashing him a quick grin that the bird-boy only blinked at. "So, your name is Edward. Since I already know about you, we don't have to use any of the instruments, since I know you hate those." She smiled at the chimera and ruffled the golden locks again.
Ed seemed to slump a little in relief and leaned into the hand; Julia half turned to Knox and Mustang and, by way of explanation, said, "All the chimeras start to freak out whenever we try using any kind of medical tool. I guess that tells us a bit about what they must have gone through."
"You say you were able to get accurate information?" Roy queried. Julia nodded, raising an eyebrow at the repeated question. "Have you ever seen anything of the chimeras… shifting, as it were, from one form to another?"
Julia blinked, her brows furrowing in confusion. "Excuse me?"
Mustang looked carefully over to Ed, who had stilled. The chimera's wings hunched, his breath seem to come quicker, and he seemed to be trembling. Mustang moved forward, heedless of the watching eyes, and set a comforting hand on his wing; golden eyes swiveled around to stare at him and the shaking subsided.
"You don't want me to tell her?" Mustang said softly, and Ed blinked anxiously at him, slumping further into a defensive hunch. "Why not?"
The chimera let out a plaintive kee that made Knox jump and swear softly. Ed flinched and huddled away from the doctor, toward Mustang. Julia didn't twitch; no doubt she'd heard the sound before. The veterinarian scooted forward, whistling quietly but brightly. Mustang was forcibly reminded of his and Hawkeye's own attempts at soothing him the same way—apparently they weren't the only ones with that particular idea. Ed retreated somewhat from his huddled little heap pressed against Mustangs side and let her approach. Julia sat on the bed and put a tentative hand on the joint of Ed's wing where it connected to his back.
"You're okay, buddy," she assured. "I know this is freaking you out—but we're just here to help, okay?" She glanced to Mustang. "Do you have any beginning idea of how to reverse this?"
Mustang shook his head regretfully. "Without seeing the transmutation circle, that's impossible. My hope is that we can get him to interact with us again enough for him to be able to figure out the inverse transmutation circle."
Julia raised an eyebrow. "You expect him to remember the transmutation circle exactly?"
"This is the Fullmetal Alchemist," Mustang said, somewhat sharply—why was he being so sensitive here? It must be the fact that Ed wasn't here to defend himself. Here, but not here. Julia blinked in surprise at both his words and tone and nodded.
"Then that might make a lot of sense." She looked back down to Ed, who was beginning to grow nervous again, it seemed, and her expression turned playful. "State Alchemist, huh? Bet you're a right genius kid."
Ed shifted, ruffling his feathers, but it didn't seem so much nervous as almost preening. Mustang was glad that of all people who'd initially been on the chimera project, he'd chosen Julia, someone who would talk to Ed like a person even if he wouldn't speak back the same way. It could only do him good, he figured—and absently, he wondered why Fluegal had kicked out so many staff members if he was as shorthanded as he claimed.
"Well, Dr. Knox, you know the kid, get over here," Julia ordered cheerfully. Still a little dumbstruck at the exhibition of this turn of events, Knox shuffled closer a bit warily. The feeling slowly faded as he saw Ed's golden eyes up close. The kid really was the same: bright, intelligent, strong, but these eyes were also nervous of him. That, if nothing else, made Knox drop the uptight persona. He was a gruff doctor, for sure, but when a patient was in shock as Ed appeared to be (probably a lingering thing, Knox thought, after what had happened to him) the best idea was to approach gently.
He reached carefully for a wing, trying to grasp the wrist (if it was still a wrist, Knox had no idea), but Ed jerked away nervously, letting out another kree for the benefit of getting the message of his displeasure across. Knox winced and drew his hand back obligingly, locking eyes with the now flighty Ed. They held the staring contest for a moment, and then Knox frowned stubbornly.
"Look, kid, things are a bit different now. You're freaked out by me and I'm a bit freaked out by you. But we're still the same people, aren't we?"
Ed blinked twice in quick succession and dipped his beak slowly in a nod. Moving his head in a nod of his own, Knox gave a small smile of approval.
"Good. Now that we've got that out of the way, I'm going to do a quick checkup, as best I can. You know how checkups go, so don't go panicking on me know, hear me?" he queried, raising his eyebrows in a mock-serious expression.
Ed relaxed as the tension drained out of him and offered his wing to Knox, who took it gently. He had to marvel at how the two living creatures were melded; he traced a finger briefly over the nearly seamless line where skin gave way to feathers and then moved to place his fingers on the pulse on the inside of the arm. Wing. Whatever. He stared at his watch on the other hand, waiting, feeling… his eyebrows crept up his forehead…
"Julia. I'm guessing his heartbeat isn't exactly normal by human standards."
She shook her head. "His heartbeat goes at a considerably faster pace in order to support his body during flight. You'll find he's also much lighter than he should be. Some of the other avian chimeras—"
"There were others?" Mustang muttered incredulously, and swore.
"—were as little as fifty or sixty pounds. He's more, most of which is due to the automail leg."
"The file said he was 83 pounds," Mustang supplied. "Does that bit sound right, at least?"
Knox looked back at Ed, who was looking around at the three of them with wide eyes. Not confused, Knox noted, simply wary. The doctor fixed his gaze with Ed's again. "Have you been eating well?"
"He eats what I eat," Mustang answered, as Ed nodded uncertainly. "Normal portions." But Julia was frowning.
"Has he flown at all since he's come here?" she questioned, to which Mustang shook his head. "That would do it, then. Flying burns and incredible amount of calories in a chimera's body. He'd be eating probably twice of what he does now; but also, he needs that exercise." She looked apologetically to Mustang. "I think what you're doing here is a hundred times better than whatever care he got at Fluegal's facility, but I'd still suggest letting him out to fly at night. That sound good, buddy?" she asked, turning playful again as she looked to Ed.
The chimera sat up straight, looking excited—such a rare sight, and Mustang felt remotely guilty that he hadn't thought of giving Ed that particular freedom. "That should be fine. Would just opening the window let him get out?" Julia nodded, and he added, "There was something in the file about his automail causing him to list to one side. Is that true? Will it cause problems?"
"Yes, it's true, but I don't think it'll be too problematic for him. Of course, it'd be better if his mechanic could come here and fit him with a lighter alloy, but that would rather depend on whether his mechanic could work with this… I'm pretty sure the main problem with his automail now is that the nerve endings shifted, so it's still attached but is missing most of its usual mobility. Buddy, can you move your leg for us?" Ed obediently moved both his legs, and indeed, the automail seemed to have a hard time twitching even a few inches.
They chatted quietly for a few more minutes, Mustang cross-referencing several other facts from the file Fluegal had given him with Julia's more supported knowledge. Finally, it was time to wrap up. Knox leaned over, resting his hands on his knees, and looked Ed in the eye.
"There's going to be a lot of people very glad you're alive, Ed," he said gruffly. "So you better stick around. And for heaven's sake, speak up a bit, will you?"
Ed blinked up at him and turned his head slightly to look at Julia as she set a hand on his automail knee.
"You'll be fine, buddy, I know it. Just hang in there. I think Mustang here has the whole thing under control."
Mustang put his own hand around Ed's shoulders and smiled softly. He thanked his lucky stars he'd named this classified—hopefully that would keep his reputation together as a fearless officer rather than a mushy surrogate father or something.
Ed nudged his body closer to the dark-haired man and smiled back.
But he couldn't do that with the chimera's beak on his face.
Once again, the blond boy seemed to have shifted faster than the eye could catch, and he was a slightly-too-scrawny human boy in a loosely fitting altered hospital gown. Much as the last time, Ed didn't seem to notice the change, and Mustang didn't let on, drinking in the rare sight of the boy's actual face instead of the beak fused to his features.
Knox stared, face suddenly pale, and gripped Ed's wrist to check his pulse again. Julia's mouth dropped open slightly.
"Nice to see you again, Ed," Mustang said amiably. With a start, Ed glanced down at himself and gave a birdlike shriek of fear. He shoved himself backwards off the bed, feathers seeming to burst from nowhere. He cracked his head against the wall in what had to be a painful motion and gave another squawk of distress. Mustang swung his legs over the bed and crouched next to Ed, but the chimera's wings snapped out powerfully and hit him into the edge of the bed.
"Ed!" Mustang barked, lunging forward and only just managing to get his arms around the shaking chimera's form. He managed to pin the flailing wings to Ed's side and pulled him into a close hug half-crouched on the floor. "You're okay, Ed, it's okay, I promise." After several minutes of hushed murmurs of comfort, Ed calmed down enough for both Knox and Julia to approach; he seemed more jumpy about the veterinarian's presence than the doctor's, which Mustang attributed to Julia's stint at Fluegal's facility and hence the connection in Ed's mind to her and what had been done to him.
Julia scooted over to sit cross-legged next to where Ed was slumped as a small heap of feathers in a hospital gown. She place her hand on his wing in a position that would have let her hold his hand if he'd actually had a human one.
"You're okay, you know, buddy," she told him calmly. "No need to freak out about shifting, it's good you can do that." Ed stared at her skeptically, but it didn't take much more convincing to have him relax. He nestled back against Roy and in the movement seemed to shed his feathers once more; Julia laced her fingers into his and gave him a comforting bump to the shoulder. He opened his eyes warily, but when he was met with no animosity, he let himself drift off to sleep. Mustang set him gently on the bed and led the two doctors out of the room.
"Thank you," he told them both. "I remind you that what you saw here is classified. Is there anything you think you should add?"
"I never saw any of the chimeras in the facility do that," Julia supplied. "I'm not sure what that might mean, but there you have it."
"His heartbeat was still abnormally fast," Knox put in, fishing a cigar out of his pocket now that he'd completed his duty. "Whatever this shifting was, it didn't change him back completely human. It only changed his outward appearance to something more readily acceptable as what he had been. And why wasn't he saying anything?"
Mustang shrugged helplessly, looking as tired as he must have felt. "I'm not sure why he's silent. For a while we didn't think he could understand, but I'm quite glad at having been proven wrong. I guess all there is to do is to hold out hope for the same thing happening with his speech."
Julia nodded slowly. "I wish you luck."
Knox grunted as Mustang snapped to light his cigar for him. "Same here. I think you're going to need it."
And with that ominous parting comment, the doctors left Mustang alone in the house with a not-so-hopeless chimera.
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