A/N: Author's notes will no longer be posted at the end of the chapter; they will be posted on the author's profile, as to avoid ruining the flow of the chapter. Enjoy, and do not forget to leave a review!
A/N #2: I'm going to finish this story even if it kills me. here's a 19k word chapter to make up for uhhhh how long has it been?
Part III - 4
/ "There are two kinds of guilt. The kind that's a burden and the kind that gives you purpose." /
He was falling, falling, falling, falling.
It was a surreal experience. Gravity was pulling him down with all its might, but a rush of air was blowing at him from the front, as if trying to keep him from plummeting.
But it didn't matter because he kept falling and falling and falling, like a rock dropped from the highest mountain. For a brief, dizzying moment, Ed wondered if there was a destination, a landing point, a surface that he'll ultimately crash into, ultimately shattering him into a million pieces of flesh and bone and blood. He wondered if the lack of one would be worse.
He kept falling, falling, falling, falling, swallowing gallons upon gallons of air. His skin was peeling off his body. His lids were blown wide, forced to watch himself fall into the white abyss. He felt like a balloon, gathering more and more air, at any moment ready to burst.
Then he landed.
No, he was still falling, it was just dark. A soul crushing, suffocating kind of darkness. He couldn't see his body or limbs or anything. He couldn't see anything. But, he could hear the whoosh of air passing him. The sense of falling was still there, a vast awareness of imminent end. But he just kept going and going, falling and falling, waiting and waiting.
Then, Al materialized.
Ed wanted to blink to be sure that it was really Al he was seeing, but the rush of air refused to let his lids close. That was fine, though, yeah. It was fine, because it was Al, here, in this place. Al, just as Ed remembered him, all those years ago, with his wide eyes and fat cheeks, and oh, that's right, that's what color his hair was.
Al was sitting, crossed-legged, in the air, in the darkness. Al was clear in the darkness, like a star in a black sky. He didn't look like he was falling; neither his hair nor his clothes rustled or moved.
Ed smiled back.
Then Al said, "Ed? Are you . . . awake?"
It was hard to hear him through the rushing winds that deafened his eardrums, but with enough focus Ed heard it. Al's voice was different than he remembered it; it was a bit rougher, but still held that childish pitch to it. It sounded familiar yet foreign.
Then he heard the words. That was a weird question, he thought. Awake from what? Why would he not be awake? What does it even mean, to be awake? He wanted to ask all that aloud, but the winds were harsh and merciless, disbarring him from breathing out any more words.
Ed said, "I don't know."
Al said, "Oh. Um, OK. Do you know how you're feeling?"
Feeling? Oh, that was an easy question. He answered effortlessly, "Falling."
Al was still smiling. Ed really missed that smile. "Um, alright. That's . . . something. Do you, ah, do you know where you are? Do you remember what happened?"
Al was really testing him today, huh? That question was a bit harder than the other one. Ed really had to think about it. He answered, "I fell."
Al's smile brightened, and Ed smiled back. Weirdly, however, it looked like Al's mouth wasn't moving in sync with his words. He said, "Did you say 'fell'? Well, I mean, I guess you might have fallen down at some point. But that's – that's not really what I meant . . . Ed, can you hear me?"
"When did you get your body back?" Ed asked, because that's right. That was weird. Al didn't have a body before; his soul was trapped in . . . something. Yeah. He didn't have it, and Ed certainly didn't remember bringing it back. Did he? Maybe he did. He probably did. That was nice.
"What?" Al said. "What was that? I can't really hear you . . . Ed? Do you know who I am?"
Oh, that was another easy question. He knew that one. Ed replied, "Alphonse". It felt nice saying his name. It felt right. His stomach seemed to blossom, brightening and opening, and Ed recognized this feeling – content. Content because he missed Al so much and now he was finally seeing him.
"Alp – who? No, no, Ed. Don't you remember? Do you remember what happened?"
He fell faster, faster now. His hair felt like it was being pulled by an invisible hand, he was being scalped. He was falling so quickly he couldn't work his mouth, couldn't speak.
Al said, "Maybe . . . maybe you should go back to sleep. You're not looking so good . . . Ed . . . ?"
Then he slammed onto the ground –
He wasn't dead.
Or, at least, he thought he wasn't. Ed hoped he wasn't.
The world was a hazy brown and grey, shapeless and swimming. Ed looked down at his hands. One was pale like how he remembered his skin, and the other was grey. Odd. He didn't remember it being that color.
He was standing, but it didn't feel like it. He took a step forward and the ground creaked. The fog beneath his feet seemed to sharpen, and he noticed he was standing on a wooden floor. When he looked up, the murky surroundings shifted, and shapes and objects became clearer.
"Oh," he said.
He was in his house.
Specifically, he was in the kitchen. He had forgotten it looked like this, but that didn't dissipate the nostalgia. He walked around the table, hand running on its surface. It was cold. He picked up his hand and looked at his fingers. They were coated with dust.
Ed stepped out of the kitchen and made his way to the family room. It was eerily empty, like not a soul lived here in centuries. He felt like an uninvited ghost, roaming around without cause. But he wasn't a ghost because he could feel, and he felt bone numbing cold.
He noticed that the windows' curtains were drawn shut, but that the house was well lit. He pulled apart the curtains but no sunlight poured through. On the other side was white, blank. No rolling hills, no houses or people, no vibrant grass or towering trees. Just white. Ed closed the curtains. He didn't want to see that.
Ed sat down on the sofa. The cushions were soft but they felt chilled. The silence that hung around him was literally, absolutely silent. He couldn't hear a thing – no birds chirping or trees rustling, no gusts of wind, no faint ringing, he couldn't even hear his own heart beating.
Then, it wasn't.
"Ed," a voice called, and the house vibrated from its loudness.
Ed winced, then looked up to where the voice was coming from. The ceiling stared back at him.
"Ed," the voice called again. Ed knew that voice. He didn't know how, but he knew it from . . . somewhere. It was low and gaunt, yet firm. It called his name again, louder. "Ed."
"What?" He snapped. He still sat on the sofa and was in no hurry to get up. He liked it here. He was comfortable. Even if it was the voice of God himself commanding him to get out of the house, Ed wouldn't oblige. He felt like a missing piece to an eternally incomplete puzzle who has finally, finally, been returned to its rightful place.
"Do you remember what happened?" The voice asked.
Something happened? He can't remember anything beyond being in this house, because he has always been in this house. His mind was blank and white, just like outside. He answered, "No."
The voice grunted. Then, "Do you know where you are?"
"Yes," Ed said, looking at the framed pictures that hung on the wall. The photos were of people, but their faces were scratched out with angry black lines. "At home."
The voice didn't respond. Ed liked that. He liked the silence. He could sit here, he thought, for eternity if he wanted. It was . . . what was the word? Ideal. It was the ideal place for him. Yeah. He was home and he liked it here.
But then the voice returned, "No, Ed. You're not."
And then hot wind blew past him. He turned his head to the source. The kitchen was glowing with the light of a hundred waving flames. It was all consuming; fire licked the countertops, table, chairs, all of it. The kitchen was on fire. Ed watched with numb fascination.
"I'm not?" Ed asked the voice, uncertain. This felt like his home, though, it looked just like it.
Glass shattered inside the kitchen. Ed startled.
Fire spat out from the kitchen doorframe. It landed on the floor beside Ed's feet, then crawled its way to the sofa. The sofa burst to flames in an instant. Ed jumped off, the heat viciously painful. Ed backed away, then stopped when he felt heat on his back. The wall was alight as well.
"Then where am I?" he asked.
The entire room seemed to glow orange. Ed took careful steps to avoid the flames, but it was pointless. Everything was on fire. The ceiling was chipping away, scorched. The walls were melting. The air was thinning, then thickened with black smog. Another window shattered.
"Do you remember what happened?"
"N – No . . . "
"That's to be expected," it said. Ed wondered, it was? "How do you feel?"
The fire closed in on him like a swarm of angry snakes.
"Hot," Ed answered.
The voice grunted again. The stairs weren't on fire, Ed noticed in all the chaos. He ran to it, tripped and fell on his knees, then crawled up the stairs. The ceiling groaned and cracked. On the second floor, the air was even darker, almost black. Ed groped the walls and let them guide him. They felt slick to the touch, warm like blood. He walked forward, blindly, then felt a doorknob.
When he opened it, he realized it was his room, his old bedroom, and there was his bed, just sitting there, among the smog. Undisturbed.
"Go back to sleep, Ed." The voice sighed.
"Wait," Ed said, but then the ceiling gave a deafening CRACK and collapsed on top of him –
He wasn't dead.
Ed knew this because his heart was beating wildly, frantically, so quickly his chest was aching. No, his chest was heaving because he was breathing so quickly, gasping for air, gasping, gasping. Emotions were falling atop him like an avalanche. What just happened? Wasn't he just . . . he was just . . . somewhere.
He couldn't remember, but maybe that was better. Whatever it was that happened felt absolutely terrifying, and now he was away from it. He was alright – Wait, no. Something was wrong. Everything was blue, like water.
He was underwater . . . his heart spiked – he was underwater.
His instant panic made him inhale, and water came rushing down his throat. Ed gagged, accidently swallowing even more water. His hands rushed to his face, covering his mouth.
Drowning. The word passed his mind like lightning. He was drowning.
Ed kicked his feet wildly. The surface of whatever ocean he was in was glimmering ahead of him. He pumped his legs desperately, pushing himself towards it. The water felt like syrup, thick and heavy, latching onto him and pulling him down. He kicked and pushed but it was making an inconsiderable change to his position.
His head and throat and lungs felt hot, but the water he was in was freezing cold. He needed air, air, air, air so badly, so desperately. He clawed within the water almost rabidly, trying to latch onto it so he can push himself upwards. Of course, his hand just passed through the murky blue liquid, useless.
He groaned from deep within his throat, tiny bubbles seeping from his mouth. The surface was right there. So close. He just needed to reach it so he could breathe. Ed gave his automail leg a vicious kick, then his flesh leg, then both at the same time, then he swiped his arms widely, then he did it all at once, over and over again, pumping himself forward and forward until the iridescent surface was close to him, near him, on top of him –
He broke through, gasped.
"Whoa, there he is. Yikes. Is that how you always wake up?"
Ed blinked the water away from his eyes – no, wait, no. There was no water near his eyes, no water on him; he should be drenched, soaked, but he wasn't. He was dry, in dry clothing, on a dry bed, in a dry room.
His heart drummed loudly. His quick breaths weren't settling, and Ed swallowed the air greedily. Where was he? Wasn't he underwater? He was, he definitely was, he remembered that vividly.
"Hellooo? Ed? You there, bud?"
He must have not broken through the surface because whoever was talking to him sounded as if they were underwater. No. He was underwater, still was. Now, for some reason, he was able to breath in it. Ed followed the voice but didn't t see anyone, didn't see a person but a bubble of darkness surrounded by even more darkness.
"Yeah," Ed said, mostly to test his throat. It was dry and parched, as coarse as sand. He rubbed at it carefully, then looked at his hand. It was grey and dark. He wondered how it had gotten that way. He let his hand fall back on the bed; it was too heavy to keep up.
The bubble of darkness expanded and deflated. It said, "Do you, uh, feel alright? You look pretty out of it."
This wasn't the first time someone asked him how he was feeling, Ed realized, but for the life of him he couldn't remember where he'd heard the question before.
Ed nodded. That felt like that was the appropriate response.
"I feel like you're just nodding just to be polite because you have no idea what I'm saying," the voice said. Another familiar yet foreign voice, Ed thought. He couldn't remember the other voices, how they sounded or where they'd come from, but he knew the memory was there somewhere, lodged deep in his mind.
"Well, anyway," the bubble said, words garbled. "Katara told me that if you were awake, I first gotta ask you some questions. Something about your head injury and memory problems, I don't know. Think you can answer them?"
Ed nodded. Questions, yes. He remembered he was asked questions, before. But before was . . . somewhere. Now he was here. Underwater, so deep that the pressure was crushing him. It was cold, but before he remembered he wasn't cold. Hot. His thoughts were too fleeting, too out of reach, like a hummingbird whipping past him. He tried to catch it, but it always slipped through his fingers.
"Cool, cool, cool. Alright, first: do you know where you are?"
He felt his brow furrow, felt the world furrow and ripple along with it. Where he was? He didn't know. It was too dark to tell, too murky. He remembered the voice, the other voice. From before, when there was fire.
Ed answered, "I'm not home."
Yes, that was where he was, before. He was in the house, but now he wasn't.
The voice, the voice from now, replied, "Er. I mean, you're not wrong, technically. I guess. Oh well, I'll take it. Moving on; do you remember what happened?"
"What happened," Ed repeated. Another familiar question from a familiar voice. The other voice asked him that question, too. It also wanted to know what happened, before. What did happen back then, before the other voice asked? He was . . . falling. Yeah. Falling from somewhere. Then he was home. That was nice. But then there was fire everywhere, and he fell into the ocean.
"A lot," Ed finally answered.
The bubble with the familiar voice made a noise, like a disappointed noise. "That's . . . vaguely correct. It's not like I would know, anyway, I kind of missed out on all of it. But a lot of stuff did happen, that I know. Katara did mention that concussions can mess up your memories a bit so you probably don't remember the specifics."
"Concussion?" That was a new word the other voices didn't say. He knew what that meant. As if to prove it, his head began to throb sharply. Ed asked, "I have a con . . . concussion?"
"Hm? Oh. Yeah, a pretty nasty one. You don't remember how you got it?"
Ed shook his head. That made it hurt more.
"That's not good, I think. Or probably for the best? Katara thinks you got it when you . . . actually, never mind. Best if I don't bring that up right now, or at least wait until you're feeling a bit better and less . . . loopy."
That was fine. Ed had already forgotten what the question was. His attention was already caught on something else. He repeated, "Katara?" because that sounded like a familiar name, he knew that name. He thought, maybe, he knew the face attached to it, too.
"Yeah, she's been busy – uh, helping around the place. Heh . . . you know how she gets." The bubble began to shrink a bit, and Ed noticed it wasn't a bubble, actually, but a person. And he knew that person, just as he knew that voice, and obviously it wasn't a bubble. Why would he think that?
Sokka asked, "Back to the questions though, then I'll let you go back to sleep. It's the last one, plus an easy one – do you know who I am?"
Sokka, that's right. It was Sokka who was talking to him, Ed remembered him. That was why the voice sounded so familiar. Was it his voice as well, that spoke to him before? No. It sounded different. It was a different person, but Ed also knew him. Oh. That's right. Ed answered, "Zuko."
"What!? No." Sokka sounded extremely displeased. "Ugh. It's Sokka. Remember? Sokka! Your otherworldly best bud? You're killing me here, Ed. Do I look anything like that walking angst matchstick? Look at this face, Ed – pristine."
"No," Ed said, Sokka's words coming at him quick, too quick for him to understand each one. He felt exhausted. "I know. I know you, but before. I heard Zuko? I think . . ."
It hurt to speak. The words were wedged deep inside him. It felt like someone was reaching into his throat and pulling them out, one at a time. He was drowning all over again.
Sokka said, "Oh. Oh, oh, I get it. Yeah, Katara assigned all of us Ed-Watching Duty for the night. Zuko was here before me, and before him was Aang. I can't believe you remember that. They each said you were completely out of it, completely delusional and not making sense. Looks like I struck gold and got a lucid Ed, huh?"
The darkness twitched when Ed blinked. Aang? He didn't remember Aang being here. He remembered Zuko's voice, and feeling incredibly warm, but before that . . . his head gave a sharp pain and Ed winced. He didn't remember a lot of things – he couldn't remember where he was or how he'd gotten here or why he was here or why, for that matter, he was concussed. He didn't remember a lot of things and it was starting to hurt.
The most painful, however, was knowing that he was forgetting to remember something very important, but not being able to remember it. It hurt when he tried to recall it, this something. This something that would probably make sense of all this confusion.
Ed asked, "Gold?" because that word also sounded familiar, because he remembered gold. Why that, though? Such an odd thing to remember in this haze of disorientation. Gold? That's right . . . he was holding gold, giving it to . . . someone, because. Because that someone wanted it. Yeah. But why did they want it?
"I'm just kidding, obviously. Awake, lucid, unhinged, doesn't really matter. We're just glad you're waking up and talking. You've been sleeping for some time now; we were kind of getting worried. Then again, considering what happened and all, you could use all the rest you could get."
The world was swimming, dancing, blurring. Ed asked, "What happened?" because now he really wanted to know what it was that happened, what this happening was that everyone knew about except for him.
But the words don't come out of his mouth; his throat is unbelievably dry, so instead, he could only manage to rasp the question, making it unintelligible. The water he was in starts splashing about, dragging and pushing him with it.
Sokka said, "Yeesh. You should probably drink some water, fix that throat of yours. You sound like you've been drinking sand."
"No," Ed said, firm, and not just to Sokka. "No more water. I can't breathe. I'll drown."
But his voice was far away, barely audible to Ed. The water seemed to flow anew, water as black as midnight, surrounding him, pulling him in. It tickled his neck, reaching up to his face, and Ed thought, no, no, don't pull me under again. But then another rush of water came, darker than the previous, and it splashed onto his face, swallowing him whole –
He wasn't dead.
For some reason, Ed was absolutely certain of this.
His eyelids were heavy and thick, but he managed to lift them all the same. A dimly lit room greeted him, the faded colors of dawn hazing around him like fog. He looked down, at himself, and saw he was in a bed, a thin blanket pulled over him.
Oh, he thought. So, I was asleep.
He closed his eyes and tried to recall how he'd gotten here. He was pleasantly surprised to find that his thoughts were clear and coherent. He felt like it had been a long time since he'd last been able to think this clearly. Concussion, he told himself. He lifted his automail hand and felt the swathes of bandages wrapped around his head. I had a concussion. Probably when that asshole slammed my head to the ground. Then, as an afterthought, God, I hope no one shaved my head.
He dropped his automail back on the bed, pushing it under the blanket. He wriggled his toes, confirming they were still there, still intact. They obeyed, and Ed felt something in him settle. Good, good. He flexed the fingers on his flesh hand and automail hand, and was satisfied to find those were working, too.
Just a concussion then. That wasn't so bad. He'd woken to worse injuries, before.
His body was terribly stiff when he pushed himself upright, back leaning against the deteriorating bed frame. How long was I asleep? He wondered, shifting his sore limbs. His head gave a light, dull ache, and he felt dizzy for a moment – but it all passed in a flash when he spotted Toph sitting in a chair in the corner of the room.
Memories barraged his mind like a hundred falling rocks.
Suddenly, even though he'd just woken up, he felt very, very, tired.
"Ed?" Toph called out. Her head was lifted, facing him. Clearly, all his moving around was loud enough to grab her attention. "Are you awake?"
How many times have I been asked that already? He considered lying, remaining knew that by answering he would be starting a conversation he did not want to begin. Not now, at least. He was tired. The exhaustion he felt was bone deep, a depressingly heavy amount that weighed him down. He would much rather sit here, alone, in utter silence, with his finally clear thoughts, and just deal with everything on his own.
That's how you ended up like this in the first place, those stupid, clear thoughts told him. Ed sighed. He licked his lips and said wearily, "Yeah . . . Yeah, I'm awake."
He watched her wring her fingers. "OK, 'cause I wasn't so sure. The floors are made of wood, so . . ." She trailed off needlessly; Ed already surmised as much.
Seeing her was weirdly nostalgic; it had been a while since he last saw her . . . when was that again? The beach house, Ed recalled. The others were there, too. Aang, Katara, Sokka, Zuko, Mus –
Toph cleared her throat. "Anyway. That's good. That you're awake, I mean. You hit your head pretty hard and gave yourself a concussion. Not literally gave yourself a concussion; obviously you didn't do it on purpose. You got a concussion. A bad one. We all took turns waking you up to make sure you didn't fall into a coma, or at least that's the reason Katara gave us."
Those memories were a bit hazier, like he was looking at them through smudged lenses. He remembered Sokka being here, remembered Zuko. He remembered Alphonse's face.
"Oh." Toph said, letting another strained pause follow after it.
It was nostalgic seeing Toph, yes, but right now it was almost like he was talking to a complete stranger. He'd never seen her look this nervous, this timid before. It was bizarre, almost alarming. He couldn't tell if she was anxious for him or if the entire ordeal made her anxious. He didn't know which one was supposed to be more anxiety inducing.
Ed closed his eyes. He hoped he'd fall asleep, but he knew the fatigue he felt had nothing to do with drowsiness.
He heard Toph shift in her seat. "Well . . . since you're awake now, I have to ask you some questions, to make sure you're, you know. Not brain damaged or anything." She gave a light chuckle.
He kept his eyes closed. "OK."
She asked, after another bout of silence, "Do you know who I am?"
A stranger, he wanted to answer. A person from another world, which shouldn't make sense but here you are and here I am. Surrounded by people with their own lives, lives I'm ruining just by being here.
"Toph," he answered, opening his eyes.
She nodded, seemingly pleased. "Do you know where you are?"
In hell. Definitely hell. That creepy Truth bastard really is God and he sent me here as punishment for all the shitty things I've done. Or maybe there was no reason. Do I even get a reason?
Ed shrugged. "Some old geezer's house. Not really sure where, exactly. On some island."
Another nod from Toph. "Close enough. It's not like I'd know what this island's called, anyway. You got the old geezer part right, though. Man, is that guy a jerk. All right, last question . . . " here she paused, her mouth twisting into an unpleasant grimace. She asked softly, "Do you remember what happened?"
His blood ran cold.
I fucked up.
He felt sick, the sort of nausea that ran from his stomach to his throat and right into his head. His insides shuddered and he knew his body did too, but he was too numb to feel anything exterior.
Ed knew damn well what happened. He remembered it as clearly as he remembered the color of his hair. He didn't think he'd ever forget. The dry blood that latched onto on his automail hand, the blood that soaked his shirt, they wouldn't let him forget.
"Ed?" Toph asked.
"Is Mustang dead?"
Toph's expression never changed, and maybe that was a good thing. Maybe it was bad. Her eyes were completely blank, and it had nothing to do with blindness. It was devoid of emotion. It was indecipherable. Ed felt violently ill. He didn't want an answer anymore.
I fucked up, I fucked up – he hoped Toph wouldn't answer, would just stay silent, never acknowledge that a question was asked. He hoped he would fall asleep and wake up back in Amestris, back in that shitty hotel room with Al hovering over him, nagging at him to wake up because he was late for his report with Colon –
But then Toph said, "No. Ed, he's not dead. He's fine. He's in the next room, asleep. He lost a lot of blood but Katara and the doctor patched him up. He was awake and talking just an hour ago, asking about you. He's fine, Ed . . . Ed?"
He heard the words, but for the life of him could not instill any meaning to them. He felt frozen, stiff, like he'd just been electrocuted by the coldest shockwave. He repeated the words Toph said over and over again in his mind, trying to decipher them.
He's not dead. He's fine. No, that didn't make sense, though. Ed felt like someone had punched him in the stomach. Hard. He stared at Toph in a feverish urgency. "He's . . . " he rasped, but the words were like knives, slicing his lungs and throat and mouth while they spilled out. It hurt worse to breath. "No, he's – he was, he was bleeding, I saw him– "
Toph shook her head. "I don't really get all the medical mumbo jumbo that Katara was feeding us, but from what I did understand, if Aang hadn't burned the wound shut, he would have . . . you know . . . but he didn't, and you guys managed to get him to a doctor in time and got his spleen all fixed up, which apparently also got messed up, but now he's fine. He's alright."
His hands dug into the mattress, twisting the flimsy material. Why doesn't it make sense? He wondered, dread prickling his skin. Why can't I believe it?
"He's . . . he's alive?"
Another nod from Toph. "Yeah."
"Are you – are you sure?" Ed asked – no, he demanded. Because he had to know, he had to know. It didn't make any sense because he saw Mustang fall, he felt the blood spill, he watched as those eyes closed – "This isn't . . . this isn't another twisted dream? Your face isn't gonna melt off and I'm not gonna wake up in this room again with fucking Appa asking me concussion-themed questions?"
"No, no. This is real, Ed. One hundred percent real. Promise. If you want, I could come over there and punch you so you can be a hundred and one percent sure."
She was smiling, a shy and almost cautious smile, but a smile nonetheless. She wouldn't be smiling if he was dead, Ed rationalized, but God, he just couldn't fathom it. Was it actually real? There's no way, he thought. His stomach felt like a rotting fruit, deteriorating at unprecedented speed. I don't – no. It can't be that easy . . . nothing works out this well for me, it has to be a ruse, a joke, some kind of, of, of messed up game that they play in this world.
But Toph said he was alive and she was sincere. Her words flowed easily, fluently, with no indication of a lie. And what would she gain from such a lie? Nothing. Which can only mean . . . can only mean . . .
"He's alive," Ed breathed.
He tasted the words; they were bitter like lemons but sweet like honey. Two waterfalls of emotions crashed down on him – elevated happiness, infinite relief like something he never felt before poured down on him from his right. To his left, a torrent of frigid resentment and raw anger slammed onto him.
"He's . . . I'm . . . fuck," he groaned, holding his stomach. It was too much. It was all too much. He had no idea how to feel, no idea which emotion he should give priority to. "Oh my God, I can't believe how stupid I was!" Anger. Yeah. That was all he could feel. His blood felt hot and the air felt thin and all he could see was red. He looked at his hands – at his automail hand, at the blood that caked over the mechanical palm. Red, red, red – "How could I fuck up this badly!?"
Toph startled, sitting up in her seat. "What? No, wait, Ed, it's not –"
"Not what? Not my fault? Is that what you were going to say?" His skull was throbbing. He brought his hand up to his head, felt the bandages, and in a bout of overwhelming frustration, pulled them off with both hands.
"Yes," She said, chin raised. "Exactly. It's not your fault."
"Newsflash, Toph! Because it without a goddamn doubt is my fault!" He crumbled up the bandages into a messy ball and threw them on the floor. "This always happens. This always happens to me. Every time I get a stupid idea, I just run with it without thinking. I never should have left the beach house. Why the fuck did I do that? I should have listened to Mustang – fuck, fuck! Why can't I do a fucking thing right!?"
"Stop it. No one blames you for any of this."
"You should. You all should – fuck." He sounded like a brat, he knew that, but he had to talk. He had to fill the silence with something because if he couldn't say anything then he would get stuck in his thoughts, his memories, and he'd have to hear that instead, over and over and over again. "Not even just this, but everything. Everything that's happened here, every time shit hits the fan here, I'm the reason for it! I dragged Mustang down, I dragged you guys down. What's next? What else is there for me to fuck up? Are you guys going to lose the war now because of me?"
"Ed." Toph got out of her chair and made her way to him. She bumped her foot into the bed and hissed. She felt her way to his side, put a clumsy hand on his arm, his stomach, his chin, then finally it found its destination on his head.
"Ed," she said again, then whacked him from behind the head.
"Ow, what the hell!" Ed scowled, holding his head."Don't do that! I'm concussed!"
"No, you're not, Katara healed you. And it's not your fault."
Ed spoke through his teeth. "Yes, it is!"
"Goddammit, ow! Stop it!"
"Not until you stop blaming yourself."
"No," this time he grabbed her wrist before she could hit him again. "Damn it, Toph, I'm not just saying that it for the sake of complaining! I'm serious." She tugged at her wrist but he didn't let go. "Mustang told me not to leave, but I did. I did it because I was being selfish, because I thought I knew what the fuck I was doing. If I didn't leave, none of this would have happened. I wouldn't have gotten captured by those fuckers, I wouldn't have needed to be rescued by everyone, and Mustang wouldn't have had to be nearly killed." A violent shiver ran down his spine. "Oh Fuck, he almost died. He almost died, Toph."
With a harder tug, she freed her wrist from his hold. "But he didn't. He's fine now."
"Yeah, now, but before . . . you didn't see – you weren't there, Toph. He was dying because of, because of me . . . " He trailed off, a memory intercepting his thoughts. That shiver kept running down, reaching his leg.
He looked at her, a wave of horror racking his ribs. "No, no, you don't get it. He – he pushed me out of the way."
He remembered hearing the whoosh of a blade cutting the air, of a force knocking him over. His heart was rabid in its beating. "I was supposed to get hit. It should have been me that . . . that . . ."
"Move." Toph suddenly said.
Ed stuttered to a halt, frowning. "W-What?"
Toph huffed and made a gesture with her hand. "I'm tired of standing. Move over and make me some room."
He swallowed thickly, but moved to the side like she asked. Toph put a hand on the bed, felt the space, and nodded. She sat down, her back facing him. There was a pregnant silence consuming the air, but outside of it all Ed could hear was the rush of his blood, the pounding of his heart, and the residual sounds of his memories.
"Ed," she said, not turning. Her shoulders were slumped, he noticed. Her back was hunched. Ed wondered again how long he'd been asleep, and if it was so long that those who watched over him were just as tired as Toph looked. "It really isn't your fault."
Ed balled his fists. He wanted to believe that, he really did, but everytime he tried to convince himself otherwise, he's be thrown back into his memories, into that moment. "You're wrong," Ed told Toph's back. "Mustang told me to stay down, to not fight. But I did anyway, because I wanted to. If I didn't get involved in the fight Mustang wouldn't have had to get involved."
"So? That doesn't mean you're to blame. The Fire Nation soldiers were the ones who attacked you guys, the ones who caught you. If they didn't, none of this would have happened. So it's them who you should blame for everything."
"They only caught me cause I left the beach house, Toph!" Ed nearly shouted. "I told you, if I had just stayed in that fucking room like Mustang told me, everything would be better."
"It's not your fault you left," Toph said.
Ed scowled harshly. "It's pretty clear I chose to leave, Toph. It was my two fucking feet that carried me out of there, wasn't it? Who else do you blame for that?"
Ed blinked stupidly, at a loss for words.
Her shoulders twitched slightly. Ed really wished she'd turn around so he could see her face, so he could figure out if she was just being sarcastic or not because that was such an absurd thing to say and it didn't make any sense whatsoever. But her tone wasn't sarcastic or cynical, and there was no underlying humor in it. It was flat and serious and why the hell would she say that?
Ed sat up. "What are you talking about?"
He watched her shoulders rise as she took in a deep breath. "I overheard you guys talking. That night."
It was amazing how those vague words made so much sense to Ed. Instantly, he was thrown back in time, and found himself back in that dust coated room with Mustang and Iroh. He could even feel the ghost pain from the bruise around his neck throb gently. Now, staring at the back of Toph's messy hair, all he felt was the icy fingers of dread, wrapping around his neck and squeezing.
No, no, no, no. His throat was burning. He swallowed thickly, but that only made it hurt. He heard himself say, "That was you behind the door."
A toneless reply; "Yeah."
"You heard what I told Iroh." That was a stupid question. Of course she heard what he said. She had fucking super hearing. Nonetheless, she nodded.
His head was throbbing mercilessly. Ed squeezed his eyes shut, but the pain didn't pass. She knows, he thought. He counted off, Mustang's alive, Mustang almost died, and now Toph knows I did Human Transmutation. He grit his teeth until his jaw ached. What else? What other shit has to happen today before I completely lose my mind?
"I'm sorry," Toph was saying. He felt like he was a million miles away from her, her voice coming at him through strained echoes; he could barely hear a thing through the repetitive she knows she knows she knows she knows going about in his head. "Really, I am. I didn't mean to eavesdrop . . . I just couldn't help it. I know you don't want hear this now, considering everything's that's happened already, but . . . I felt like you should know. I didn't tell anyone else. Obviously. I didn't think you'd want some weirdos from another world knowing your . . . secret. You've got enough problems here as it is. No offense. Sorry I'm so bad at apologizing, too."
His thoughts cut off suddenly. Considering everything's that's happened already, that was what she said. Ed frowned. Everything that happened? He counted off again, Mustang's alive, Mustang almost died, and now Toph knows I did Human Transmutation.
Ed stared at his hands with strange fascination, his thoughts revolving around one after the other like a ferris wheel. She knows, she knows, she knows – but considering everything that happened . . . was it really that awful?
The thought was so foreign that Ed wondered if someone else was thinking for him. Of course it's bad! He berated to himself. She knows I did Human Transmutation! She knows I committed the ultimate taboo! But for some strange reason, that perceptive didn't hold as much weight as he expected it to. She knows, but . . .
Ed's brow furrowed. He looked up. "Toph?"
This time, she turned around. Her lips were pursed and her jaw was tight, as if she was preparing herself for what he was going to say. But Ed didn't even know what he was going to say. He wanted to tell her that it was fine, that sure he was a bit peeved but it was over and done with, nothing he could do about it now. But that didn't come out. His mouth couldn't say that.
Instead, he found himself asking, "Do you think I'm tainted, then?"
Toph's mouth opened, closed. She winced, and then opened her mouth again. "What?"
"It's just . . . you heard what Iroh said. That the reason Aang and I were at each other's throats" he winced at the poor choice of words but continued, "that the reason was because of what I . . . did." His heart rate was picking up again. "That because I did Human Transmutation, because I tried to bring my mom back to life," faster, faster, his heart was beating so fast, "that my spirit got tainted. That I'm tainted. But it's not like I did it for some twisted reason, you know? Al and I . . . we just missed her so much. We just wanted to see her again. Is that so bad? Does that make me a bad person?"
Toph squirmed uncomfortably. She looked like she'd rather be anywhere in the entire world than here. "I . . . I don't think I'm the right person to ask."
"No, but you see, you are." The exhaustion he felt before seemingly vanished. A desperate sort of adrenaline had taken over. Mentally, he added a bit more to the list, Trapped in another world, left Al alone, Mustang's alive, Mustang almost died, and now Toph knows I did Human Transmutation. "You're the perfect person to ask, Toph, because you're not from my world. You're not from Amestris, you don't know alchemy or it's rules and laws and taboos. I can't ask someone from Amestris this, because I'll immediately get condemned once they hear what I did. And I understand more than anyone why Human Transmutation is forbidden, but still. No one there has an opinion on what we did, only predetermined facts, preconceived notions; I tried to play God, or I destroyed Al's body. But over here . . . it's not the worst thing in the world. It's not the ultimate taboo. It's not something that could taint someone's soul . . . right?"
He hoped he was making sense to her. He didn't think anything he said made sense. Toph was staring at him, and even though it was just empty, unseeing eyes that looked at him, he felt them bore into his very core. I'm not a bad person, he thought fervently. I can't. I can't be a bad person here, too. Please. I can't be a bad person in two worlds.
"I really am the wrong person to ask," Toph sighed. Slowly, she said, "When it comes to spirits and all that glowy stuff, I'm the last person you want to have a discussion with. I barely even understood what Iroh was telling you yesterday."
He was crumbling, deteriorating, piece-by-piece Ed felt himself fall apart –
"But," Toph said. "I don't think you're tainted. At least, I don't think that's the right word. I think your alchemy just didn't translate well here, you know? Like a cultural misinterpretation. You're a foreigner, and no one here is gonna know what that means for your spirit. Iroh says tainted? Yeah, well, Aang can actually see spirits and he never said that. He did say you gave off a bad vibe, but I mean, of course you did. You're from another world. All the weird spirits give him a bad vibe, and you're from another freakin' dimension or something, so naturally you're giving off the funkiest of vibes. And it has nothing to do with the human transmu-whatever. It's cause you're basically an alien to us."
The loud roaring in his mind quieted. Toph continued, softer, "And I'm not going to pretend to understand what you and your brother did with your alchemy and all. . . but Ed, you guys were just kids. Everyone's done stupid things when they were kids. I ran away from home and lived with badgermoles when I was a kid, which I know doesn't compare to your thing. But it was a dumb thing to do at the time, I understand that now, and you obviously understand now that what you did wasn't the best idea. That doesn't make you a bad person. You guys were young and missed your mom, which is so unbelievably normal. You guys wanted to bring her back and tried whatever you could, also normal. The motivations behind it were genuine and full of childish hope, and you guys acted on it because you had the means to do it. That doesn't make you a bad person, Ed. I mean it. You're really not. There's nothing wrong with missing your mom and doing whatever you can to see her again. It's normal. I feel like I'm just rambling. Does that, uh, make sense?"
There was a foul tightness inside him before, like a barbed wire wrapped around his heart and lungs and ribs, squeezing and ripping him from the inside, but now . . . it lessened. Every word Toph said seemed to loosen and loosen that wire, until finally he no longer felt so constrained. There was a weightless feeling there, now, and it was so comfortable and natural. He felt . . . hell, he didn't know what he felt, but he knew that he felt better, better than he did before, and it was her words that did that, because everything that Toph said was exactly what he wanted to hear, even though he didn't know he wanted to hear it. It made sense and didn't make sense all at the same time, but Ed liked that.
The tension is his body bled out. He leaned back against the headboard and blew out a heavy sigh. He looked up to the ceiling. The room felt brighter, and he didn't think it had anything to do with the gradual sunrise that seeped through the thin curtains.
He turned to Toph with a smile. "That's . . . the longest I've ever heard you talk. Ever."
She looked confused for a moment, her frown deepening, but eventually the lines of tension on her forehead dissolved. She bristled in good humor, "You're the idiot that asked me such an open ended question."
Ed grinned. Now that's more like Toph. "It was a yes or no question. No one was asking for an in depth analysis explaining your answer."
"Oh, shut up, you dumb nerd."
"How can I be dumb and a nerd? That's an oxymoron, you know."
"Exactly. You're an oxymoron, moron."
Ed laughed aloud, and hell, did it feel good to laugh in earnest. It felt like it has been weeks since he felt the need to laugh, to smile, to feel some semblance of amusement. Toph chuckled with him, shoving him with her shoulders lightly.
When the laughing quieted, Toph said soberly, "I am sorry, though. That I overheard."
Ed shrugged. "It's fine. I'm actually . . . glad that you know. Only Mustang and a few others back home know about it. It's nice to get it off my chest."
"But you knew I was listening in. I know it bothered you enough to make you leave . . ."
"Honestly? I was going to leave either way. I was pretty dead set about it, even before the talk with Iroh. You don't have to blame yourself for that."
Toph didn't respond, not for while at least. When she did finally speak, she was defiant. "I won't. Only if you stop blaming yourself for what happened yesterday."
Ed frowned. "That's – "
There was a gentle knock on the door.
He swallowed whatever it was he was going to say. There was a split second panic that blared in him mind, of him thinking it was an enemy on the other side of the door, or someone he didn't know that was out for his blood. But then he remembered where he was and who he was with and relaxed.
Toph didn't turn her head. "Yeah, come in."
The door opened. Katara appeared like a ghost, drifting in somberly. She looked the part, too; her face was terribly pale and her eyes were gaunt, almost hallow. There were dark stains on her clothes, splattered about in different sizes, and Ed knew precisely where she'd gotten them from.
Katara startled when she noticed Ed; she froze from where she stood, eyes wide. She looked to Toph, and then back to Ed. Quietly, in a strange tone, she said, "Oh! Ed, I didn't know you were . . . awake . . . um, do you know . . . ?"
Toph stood up from her seat and stretched. She said, nonchalantly, "Relax. He's coherent. Knows where he is and what happened and everything. No need for the whole song and dance."
Katara didn't look so sure, almost wary. She took careful steps towards him, like she was approaching a wounded animal. Ed hoped that wasn't how he looked. He sat up and squared his shoulders.
When she was nearly a foot away from the bed, she paused. She broke off her intent gaze to glance down on the floor. "You took off your bandages?"
Ed was taken aback. That was not the question he was expecting her to ask. He had already established in his mind that if she were to ask him if he remembered what happened, he would promptly tear out his hair. But she didn't.
"Uh," he began. Her expression was really weird, almost mimicking the blank stares he'd received from Toph. It made him nervous. "Yeah. It was itchy. Was I not supposed to?"
He wondered if he sounded as stupid as he thought he did. He probably did. Toph was trying to be subtle by biting her lip, but even from the corner of his eye he could tell she was holding in a snicker.
It was Katara's reaction that really threw him off; it was like that kind of stupid answer was exactly what she wanted to hear. Suddenly, in one long stride, she rushed to his bed and hugged him fiercely.
"Thank goodness," she breathed into his hair. She held him so tightly that he could feel the slight tremors that racked her body. Ed was frozen stiff in her embrace, not knowing what to do or say or react. But slowly, he let himself relax.
He let his forehead touch her shoulder. "Sorry," he mumbled.
Her hold on him became more firm and she whispered sternly, "Don't be. Not for one second, Ed. Don't you dare."
She pulled away gently but kept her hands on his shoulders. He was glad to see she wasn't crying; he didn't what he'd do if he saw that. No, instead, she was smiling down at him. Ed couldn't help but smile back.
"I'm so glad to see you awake, Ed," Katara said. "It's been . . . well, it's been rough, I'm not going to lie to you. I'm sure Toph already told you about your head injury."
Ed nodded. "She gave me the whole rundown, yeah. Told me about the concussion and . . . everything else."
She didn't blink twice at his pause. "That's good. You're up to speed, then." She let go of his shoulders and leaned over a bit. "Really wish you didn't take off the bandages, though, but I guess if you had the strength to do that, then you must be healing well. How are you feeling? Any headaches?"
He nearly rolled his eyes. "I'm fine."
"Ed," she snapped, making him wince. "Don't start. I have had it with you brushing off every single injury you get because you think it's not important. I had to put up with it with your foot, then again with your shoulder. I won't put it up with it now. Now tell me honestly; how are you feeling."
Toph snorted from where she stood, but didn't say anything else. Ed couldn't help but grimace. I guess I have been ignoring every injury I get, he begrudgingly agreed. Damn. Have I really been getting hurt that often?
Ed sighed, defeated. "I guess . . . my head still hurts a little. Like I have a mini headache. I feel kind of nauseous, too."
Katara nodded approvingly. "Do you have any problems with your vision? Are you dizzy? Do you feel warm?"
Ed shook his head to all those questions. Katara seemed relieved. "That's good. You're recovering. The headaches should come and go for a day or two, and the nausea will pass after you eat something. You just need to take it easy and rest up as much as you can, but even I know that's advice that will promptly be ignored."
Just hearing the word food reminded Ed at how famished he was, not to mention thirsty, too. His throat felt like it has been housing sand for the past two days. But he didn't linger on those thoughts for too long. He held his gaze with Katara and asked, "Is Mustang really OK?"
Katara's smile wavered a bit. Her eyes bounced to Toph before returning to Ed. She seemed to be choosing her words carefully, "He's . . . recovering. The doctor – his name is Bei Pan, if you don't remember – he's an intolerable man but a great doctor. He worked on Mustang for about three hours, fixing his spleen and then stitching him up. When he was done and had gone to bed, I snuck in to Mustang's room and fixed whatever I could with my water bending. He lost a lot of blood, though, and there's nothing my water bending can do about that. He gets the same advice as you do; rest, eat up, and no overexertion."
Ed felt his skin tighten. Of course he's not OK, Ed thought angrily, angry mostly at himself for being so naïve. How could he be OK? He was fucking impaled in the stomach – he shook his head, eyes shut. No, shut up. Stop thinking about that. But that was a useless command; the images kept flashing in his mind like lightning.
"Is he awake now?" He asked Katara.
Ed started to pull himself out of bed, his still asleep limbs protesting. I have to see him. I have to see what he looks like. I have to see with my own eyes that he's alive.
But Katara didn't let him take a step forward. She put a hand on his shoulder, not pushing down or away, but stopping him gently. Softly, she murmured, "Later, Ed. Why don't you go wash up first?"
"What? I don't –"
Her grip on his shoulder tightened. "Ed," she said, and that ghostly expression she sported earlier returned; she looked incredibly tired all of a sudden. "Listen to me. Mustang has been asking about you since the moment he woke up. He's been just as worried about you as you've been of him. It's best if you don't let him see you like this."
Like this? Ed didn't follow. Katara's eyes glanced down, so Ed looked down, too.
"Oh," he said aloud. He'd completely forgotten about that. His shirt was drenched in dry blood, staining it a hideous maroon color. Both his flesh arm and his automail arm seemed to have been hastily washed at some point, but residual red still lingered. I probably look like I was the one that got stabbed, Ed thought with little humor.
Katara released his shoulder. "There's a tub in a room just down the hall. The doctor stepped out a while ago, so take as much time as you need, alright? Mustang will still be awake by the time you finish."
Ed searched for a reason to argue but couldn't find one. After a long stretch of silence, he said, "alright."
The feeling of having woken up from a very long and restless nap still hadn't left him. It lingered on like the stench of a rotting corpse.
Mustang frowned. Maybe comparing recovering from a life threatening injury to a long nap wasn't the best way to describe it. Then again, he didn't have any other precedent to compare it to. He has never been stabbed before, although he has been shot. But that . . . wasn't really the same. Being shot at was quick and precise, the pain instant and constant. Being stabbed, however, fluctuated in pain, was more intimate and burning. It fucking hurt.
And recovering from it wasn't any more pleasant. His mouth felt both sticky and dry, like he hadn't brushed his teeth in weeks, or that he'd been brushing it with petroleum. Swallowing was worse because then he'd have to taste that bile, and it was painful because his throat was as dry as blistered wood and whatever he did manage to swallow only made it burn. Then there was his head – it was so thick and heavy, like someone shoved quilts into his ears; he felt lethargic and alert all at once, ready to get off this bed in an instant but also too tired to even life a toe.
Mustang sighed deeply through his nose. He stared ahead at the door indifferently. His thoughts were buzzing through his head like annoying mosquitos and he was in no mood to indulge them any further. They were frivolous thoughts, mostly, about the pain and discomfort he felt, and he has been internally complaining about them for so long now that he'd grown sick of hearing himself. The other thoughts were much darker and left him feeling drained. He didn't like thinking about thinking about them.
That doesn't even make sense, he thought absurdly. He shook his head and sagged deeper into the hay filled pillow. God, I wish there was some morphine in this world.
There wasn't though, because he asked. Repeatedly. When he asked Katara for some, the girl thought he was running a fever and was speaking nonsense. When he asked the doctor whose name escaped him, the man grumbled something under his breath about brats and their slang words and let him drink something from a bottle he had stashed in the next room.
That was nice, Mustang remembered. It tasted familiar, whatever it was that he drank, like moonshine, but more bitter and acidic, if that was even possible. It numbed the pain and made him feel pleasantly warm and relaxed. Its effects were temporary, though, and Mustang couldn't ask for more because the doctor had stepped out to get more supplies or something and had yet to return.
How long ago was that? He wondered absently. Mustang wasn't sure. He'd been awake for a while now, close to a few hours maybe. Well, maybe not that long. He didn't entirely trust his sense of time. It felt like a few hours but it was most likely just a few minutes. Recovering really stunted his ability to grasp the passage of time. He'd probably fallen asleep half a dozen times as of yet, and each time he woke up he thought he'd been asleep for days, because it sure as hell felt like it. But then Sokka or Katara or Aang would come in to check on him and tell him no, it had only been less than an hour.
It's because I've been on my back this whole time. He wasn't used to being incapacitated for so long. It made him feel unbelievably restless. Katara told him he needed as much rest possible, and Mustang knew that; this wasn't his first run in with blood loss. Still. That didn't stop him from standing and trying to walk around the small room. Which he was able to do. He was. For maybe just a few minutes. Then his legs started shaking and his head started spinning and his stomach started burning, so he called it quits and collapsed onto the bed gracelessly.
Hawkeye would have shot me point blank if she caught me – no, don't, Mustang interrupted himself. Don't start that again. Just saying her name in his head made the memories of Amestris come rushing back, and he didn't want that. If he thought about that, about them, then the long fingers of melancholy would grab him and pull him deeper and deeper into the abyss of self-pity – no. Stop.
What was he thinking about before? Napping, right. He still felt like he woke up from a long nap, even though he knew he'd been awake for some time now. That feeling lingered. That was what Mustang was focusing on right now. Right. Wait, no. He didn't want to think about that dull ache or that warm lethargy. Don't think about the pain, he told himself. Then he thought, well, what else is there to think about? His mind offered him a few samples of other trains of thought and Mustang decided, never mind. I just won't think at all.
There was a knock at the door and Mustang's immediate thought was, thank God. A distraction from my thoughts, because he knew damn well he couldn't just shut his brain up that easily.
He sat up in the bed, but then a sharp pain erupted in his stomach and forced him back down. He rolled his eyes at his uncooperative body. To the door, he grunted a short, "come in."
The door opened and revealed Aang, one hand on the door knob and the other holding a plate of . . . something, Mustang couldn't see. Aang looked just like he did the last time Mustang saw him, and just like the time before that, and the time before that. All the kids were in rotation for checking-up duties, and this was Aang's third visit, and just like every visit, he looked uncomfortable and tired and incredibly apprehensive.
Mustang gestured him over with a lazy wave. Aang obliged, looking at him disapprovingly. "You're supposed to be resting."
Mustang raised a brow. He looked down at himself, at his laid out body, then back at Aang. "I am."
"As in sleeping," Aang stressed. The boy sat down on the chair next to Mustang's bed. The bags under his eyes seemed darker than before, Mustang noticed. All the kids looked like that. I probably look even worse.
Mustang made a face. "I slept. In fact, I slept right after Katara left. I just woke up."
"Katara left this room not even half an hour ago."
"And I've been sleeping that entire half hour. Look how well rested I am." He raised his arms and waved to himself, knowing damn well he probably looked like a revived corpse.
"Uh huh." Aang pursed his lips, amused. He offered the plate in his hand to Mustang, saying, "Here. We took them from the doctor's cabinets. Hopefully he doesn't mind. I don't think he would. Katara said you have to eat it all."
Mustang took the plate and stared down at its contents. "What is this?"
"Uh, apples? Do you . . . Do you guys not have apples in your world? Um, see, they're a kind of fruit, and the red ones are sweet – "
"Aang. I know what apples are."
"Oh." Aang ducked his head, embarrassed.
"I meant, rhetorically, what is this." He pointed to the apples with one affronted hand and asked, "Why did you cut them up like this?" Sitting on the plate were six symmetrical slices of apple, lined up side by side like canoes.
Aang blinked. "I didn't, Katara did."
"Yes, but why?"
"Well, you're hurt and all. I guess Katara thought it'd be easier for you to eat?"
"Why would eating a whole apple be hard for me?"
Aang shrugged widely. "I dunno why you're complaining; do apples taste bad in your world? Do you not like them?"
"This isn't about the apples; it's about how the apples were cut. This? This is how a mother would cut up an apple for her infant son. How much of an invalid do you all think I am?"
"Before or after you started complaining about sliced apples?" Aang teased.
Mustang gave him a withering look. He picked up a piece of the apple and scrutinized it. He has been getting this treatment a lot recently, by all of them. He's never been cossetted by children before. He didn't know what to make of it. Toph scolded him constantly, Sokka patronized him mercilessly, and Katara mothered him relentlessly. It was both mildly humiliating and kind of heartening. He appreciated it, he really did, but things like cutting up his apples for him was a bit much.
Could be worse, he decided casually, popping the apple slice in his mouth. It tasted immensely sweeter than the ones from Amestris, even the texture was off. Chewing, he asked Aang, "did Edward wake up yet?"
Aang scratched his ear absently. "Sokka told me he was kind of coherent when he was checking on him last night, but that he fell asleep after that pretty quickly. I heard Katara's and Toph's voices when I passed his room, so probably. It's Toph's turn to watch him now."
Mustang frowned and picked up another slice. "Toph's watching him? You do know she's blind, right? Not to mention that this entire house is made of wood?"
Aang waved off his concerns. "It's fine. She said she could handle it; she has pretty good hearing to make up for the blindness, you know. She could probably tell if Ed's awake from hearing a change in his breathing or something. She could probably even hear us talking right now."
"I don't doubt Toph's hearing abilities. It's Edward's ability to stay put that I don't trust," Mustang muttered, taking a bite out of another slice.
To be quite honest with himself, Mustang knew that most of his restlessness was attributed to the fact that he hasn't seen Fullmetal not once since waking up in this strange house. The last thing he remembered was bleeding out in a beach surrounded by a whirlwind of chaos, with Edward's distraught and panicked face looming over him. Mustang grimaced at that memory, feeling that same restless feeling blossom anew. It wasn't that he didn't believe Aang and the others when they told him that Edward was fine, that he was sleeping off a concussion and would be good as new once he woke up. It was just that . . . he'd rather affirm it with his own eyes.
Aang snorted and said, "You think he's going to try and sneak out? I think you're confusing him with a certain someone who tried to leave his room the moment he woke up. . . "
The suggestive tone made Mustang want to throw his apple at Aang. He did, but Aang easily caught it and gave it back to him, snickering. Mustang huffed. "I told you. I wasn't trying to leave. I just wanted to walk around a bit and test out my stamina."
"You've been spending way too much time with Sokka recently, haven't you? Speaking of, I haven't seen him, or heard him for that matter, in quite some time. Zuko, too. Did they leave?"
"Yeah. Sokka went out after the doctor left, said something about following him because he was acting weird. Zuko left an hour ago, went to find a market that sells these herbs that Katara said she needed."
Mustang couldn't help but purse his lips in displeasure. "I'd rather we didn't all split up again, after what happened."
"I'm sure they're OK. I mean, the island's pretty small, and I don't think they'd go too far. They should be back soon, anyway. Don't worry too much about it. Didn't Katara tell you to take it easy? Worrying doesn't sound like taking it easy."
Worrying seemed like the only thing he could do in his current situation. Mustang chewed his apple sullenly. He knew he was only working himself up with all his worrying, but he couldn't help it. For them to separate after knowing that was the sole reason why the disaster that was yesterday happened warranted his worrying. They know what they're doing, Mustang told himself, but even in his head he didn't sound so sure. They do. They've been doing just fine before you dropped into their lives. These aren't just naïve kids that do whatever they want for the hell of it. They know what they're doing.
Mustang sighed to both Aang and himself. "Fine, fine."
The sugar in these apples were doing wonders for him, Mustang noticed absently. His head felt clearer than before, and that God awful taste in his mouth finally dissipated. He sat up in the bed, and the pain in his stomach was minimal, almost like touching a bruise. If Aang weren't here, he would have another go at walking, and he was almost tempted to if he knew it wouldn't upset Aang.
"You know," Mustang started, grasping on that last thought. "I've been wondering. Is something bothering you, Aang? You seem awfully distracted recently."
Aang brow furrowed before he ducked his head. "I – I do? Uhm, I don't know. There isn't anything. That's bothering me, that is."
"Are you sure?" Mustang asked, but he wasn't really expecting an answer since he already knew what it was. He popped another apple slice in his mouth and said casually, "Because you definitely look upset about something. Actually, I've noticed you have this weird look in your face whenever you look at me. You even have trouble looking me in the eyes. Like you're doing now."
Aang started, then picked up his head. When their eyes met, Mustang could see the discomfort in the boy's eyes. Aang quickly looked away with a grimace. Mustang said, "Yes, just like that."
The Avatar wringed his fingers like a child that was just caught stealing. "It's – it's nothing. I'm just tired."
"Oh?" Mustang pretended to look comforted. "That's good. What a relief. Because for a moment there I thought you were feeling guilty and remorseful about that whole cauterization ordeal. But if you say that you're just tired than I suppose that must be the case."
There was a wince from Aang, followed by a face red from embarrassment. Nonchalantly, Mustang picked up another slice of apple and waited. Aang squirmed from his seat. Mustang took a bite, chewed, then swallowed.
"Aang," he said. "Are you feeling guilty?"
His lips hardly parted, but still the quiet mumble of, "kind of," managed to slip out and reach Mustang's ears. As a response, Mustang gave a deep, weary sigh that might as well have been a long groan. Aang hurriedly said, "I – I can't help it, OK? I mean, I burned you! On purpose! And now you're hurt and you've got that scar –"
"And if you didn't burn me I would have died," Mustang stopped him. He had one hand lifted in a placating manner, the other pinching the bridge of his nose. He let out another sigh. "I didn't think you of all people needed to hear this, since I assumed it was pretty obvious and that you were smart enough to grasp it, but here you go: you saved my life, Aang. And I don't mean that in any sense other than literal. I would have bled out and died if you didn't cauterize the wound – no," Mustang interrupted when he saw Aang's mouth moving. "Let me finish. Because I know exactly what you're going to say, I'm going to counter them all to save us both some time; no, you didn't hurt me, because I was unconscious the entire time. No, you didn't end up permanently damaging me, because the scar is healing nicely and Sokka said it somewhat resembled Appa, which I thought was quite neat. Look." He lifted his shirt and peeled off the bandages wrapped around his wound, revealing a small pink and red scar that had the uncanny likeness to Appa's body.
Aang leaned it to get a better look at it. He cocked his head to the side. "Oh, wow. It does kind of look like him."
"So you see," Mustang continued, pushing his shirt back down. "You have nothing to feel upset about. Rather, you should feel whatever feeling it is people get when they save another person's life. In fact, I haven't yet thanked you or what you did, have I? Thank you, Aang, for saving my life."
The boy looked absolutely flustered. He scratched the back of his neck, mumbling, "It wasn't like it was my idea, I mean, Katara was the one who told me to do it. I was just listening to her, uhm, it's – it's no big deal."
"Of course." He reached for the last apple slice. "In any case, hopefully now that gloomy expression of yours will go away. You should feel proud of yourself, Aang. Not many people can say they've used fire to save a life."
He went to put the apple in his mouth but then stopped. If Mustang didn't know better, he'd say that the color in Aang's face had completely washed away, replaced with a nauseating paleness. Mustang's forehead creased. ". . . It's not just the cauterization that's bothering you, is it?"
Aang pursed his lips and shook his head. Mustang put the apple back on the plate and pushed himself up. He waited patiently for Aang to start talking again.
"I'm . . . " Aang bit his lips, wringed his fingers, and tried once more. This time, he took in a large breath and just blurted out what he wanted to say, "Yes, OK, the whole burning you thing really bothered me. Why shouldn't it, though, right? That's a normal thing to be freaked out about, not that I was freaked out. But then I started realizing that it really, really bothered me. Like more than anything I've ever done before. I know that I had to do it to you to help you, I know that. But it was the burning part that I didn't like. Then, I thought – well, if I'm so averse to hurting a friend to save their life, then what am I going to do when I'm up against the Fire Lord? How could I face him? I cant – I don't think I can kill him. I don't want to. But what else can I do? I have to fight him. That's my destiny. But hurting people, even if it's him . . . I don't think I can do it."
His eyes were bright with desperation when he stared at Mustang. "What would you do? If you were in my position, how would you . . . deal with the Fire Lord?"
Mustang tried to process that all with one blink, but it was to no avail. It was not at all what Mustang was expecting to hear, nor prepared to retain, and Aang had spoken so quickly that he was sure he missed a few things. But what rang out as clear as a bell to him was that final question. The Colonel felt something inside him tense. It was his turn to stutter when he spoke, "I . . . I don't think I should answer that."
"Why not? Oh, are you going to tell me that I should be asking myself that question, that only I have the answer? I don't think I can do with more deep and obscure wisdom. I kind of really need a straightforward answer. And Ed said you were- are a soldier in your world's military, so I'm sure you know some, um, tactics? Or strategies? I don't know, but anything would work, that is if you think it would work."
Mustang pursed his lips, searching for the appropriate response. "No, Aang . . . what I meant is, I'm not the right person to ask because our circumstances aren't the same. In this context, whatever I would advise you would be the wrong answer."
Aang frowned, clearly confused. "How come? Your world's military never fought in a war?"
"We have." The apples threatened to climb out of his throat but Mustang pushed that feeling down with a thick swallow. "I have. And, as you asked, if I were in your shoes, what I would do is everything you don't want to do."
"What do you mean . . . ?"
He looked at Aang almost sadly, sighing. "I killed people in the war I fought in, Aang. I'm very familiar with death, and I've dealt it so many times that I would easily resort to killing if it was an available solution."
"O-Oh," was Aang's shocked response. He looked down quickly, at his lap, and said nothing else. The uncomfortable silence was all consuming.
Great advice to give to a kid, a voice in Mustang's head said, a voice that sounded an awful lot like Hughes. Know your audience, Roy, jeez. That's a kid you're talking to! Mustang mentally swatted the voice away by telling it what he always told the real Hughes; I'm terrible with children.
He massaged his head with a hand, berating himself for polluting the atmosphere. He searched for a way to salvage the depressing mess he made. When Mustang spoke again, there was a nonchalant tone attached to his words. "But that's just me. It doesn't mean you have to, too."
Ah, there we go. Aang was making eye contact with him again. Mustang continued, "You and I, we're two different people. Different personalities and rationalities and . . . experiences. Just because that's how I would deal with your situation does not mean you have to as well."
Mustang nodded. Then, he smiled a bit, and said, "Though that does mean you'll still have to settle with a deep and obscure answer from me; which is you're going to have to answer that question on your own."
The Avatar looked thoroughly dismayed. He hung his head and groaned. "That's what I was afraid you'd say. Ugh. I don't know what to do, though!"
"You'll know eventually. Maybe not now, but it'll come to you when the time is right."
"I hope so," Aang mumbled. "But what if – "
Whatever else he was about to say was rudely and abruptly interrupted by the violent opening of the bedroom door in what Mustang could only describe as strangely nostalgic.
The door swung on its hinges and slammed into the wall, making Aang startle. On the other side of it was a slightly damp Edward Elric.
"Ah, Fullmetal," Mustang said promptly, like it was the mandated reaction to have once a door is violently opened - which it was, in his case, since that was how he always responded whenever Fullmetal kicked open his office door.
But maybe, in hindsight, he shouldn't have let that be the first thing he said to Edward after almost dying in front of him, because Ed immediately clenched his jaw and tensed his shoulders in the same way he did when Mustang was a breath away from reprimanding him.
That entire second had more déjà vu in it than any other moment Mustang could recall. It came and went in another second, leaving him dazed. If Aang weren't here, I would seriously have believed we were back in Amestris, back in my office.
"Ed!" Aang said, breaking the spell. He stood up. "I didn't know you were awake. That's great! How are you feeling?"
Edward blinked, as if just now noticing that Aang was in the room too. Mustang took stock of Ed's appearance in that moment. The kid had clearly washed up before coming in; his hair was slightly wet, pulled back in loose pony tail with strands of it dangling behind his ears. He seemed a bit peaky, his eyes too bright. He wore clothes that seemed a size too large for him, with a coat as red as his usual one, but clearly not the same one.
Ed blinked again, then turned to Aang. "Yeah. . . " he slowly answered.
Aang's eyes bounced from him to Mustang. There was a weird tension in the air that arrived along with Ed that Mustang couldn't figure out yet. It wasn't quite suffocating or overbearing, but it was palpable enough to make Aang look uncomfortable.
Mustang resisted the urge to sigh for what might be the third time. If talking to Aang tired him out, then talking to Edward was going to utterly drain him. He knew with awful familiarity what Ed was thinking, what he was going to say, going to react. As much as Edward denied it, the kid was as transparent as a window.
Mustang made a small gesture with his hand. "Aang, would you give us a moment . . . ?"
"Uh, yeah, sure. I'll just . . ." he trailed off, pointing to the door. He passed Edward, shooting him a small sympathetic look, before closing the door behind him with a soft click, leaving Edward and Mustang alone in the room.
Edward was staring at Mustang – ah, no, glaring would be the more appropriate description, Mustang thought. Fullmetal had a hurricane of emotions plastered on his face; he looked like he has holding himself back from both punching Mustang in the face and bolting out of the room. It's amazing how differently Fullmetal and Aang deal with the subject of their guilt, Mustang mused, then frowned when he realized he was the common factor.
The tense silence stretched on, and Mustang realized they were both waiting for the other to start talking. And obviously Fullmetal wouldn't start because if he did he would have been shouting even before he stomped through the door.
Mustang sat up even further on the bed. He rolled his neck. He nodded to the now vacant chair near his bed. "Have a seat, Fullmetal."
"I'd rather stand."
If Mustang had the tenacity to deal with the inventible screaming match it would have produced, he would have rolled his eyes. So, Fullmetal was in that mood. That boiling anger that was rooted in self-deprecation but outwardly branched out to anyone around him. So a typical Fullmetal mood. Lovely.
"OK," Mustang shrugged. He reached for the plate beside him, then stopped in a blatantly exaggerated manner. He looked at Ed. "Oh. How rude of me. Do you want an apple slice, Fullmetal? There's only one left, but I've already eaten my share."
Through grit teeth, Ed said, "I don't want a fucking apple."
"Suit yourself. They're quite tasty." He took a bite of it and hummed softly while he chewed. "Delicious."
That was the last straw for Fullmetal. With fists balled and shoulders shaking in rage, he shouted, "God fucking damn it, Colonel! Stop being an asshole and just say it!"
Mustang frowned, raising a brow. He gave no indication of being fazed by Fullmetal's outburst, which only seemed to piss him off even more.
Ed threw his hands in the air. "Well? Aren't you going to –"
There it is. Mustang spoke over him. "Let me guess; 'aren't you going to yell at me? Say it was my fault? Tell me I was wrong and you were right? Say that none of this would have happened if I just listened to you in the first place?' Etcetera, that what you were going to say, Fullmetal?"
Ed's hands had paused mid-gesture, his mouth agape. He stared at Mustang like he'd grown a second head. Slowly he brought his arms down, and then crossed them. He scowled darkly, "Fine, yes, you self-righteous asshole. That's what I was gonna say."
"Then I saved us both a great deal of time, hm?" Ed's teeth were bared, like a wild dog. A tasteless comparison, perhaps, he thought . . . but no, now that he thought it, that was exactly what Edward was. There were some faded bruises on his face, Mustang noticed. Katara had mentioned that he had bruises on his arm and neck too, like someone had been aggressively holding him down. And a messy cut on his shoulder, too, packed atop the healing wound he received from Azula's lightning bolt. A wild dog that's been pushed to the corner too many times now. No wonder he's ready to lash out at anyone.
"Now, I'll ask you again," Mustang spoke slowly, like he was describing a complicated formula to a toddler. "Do you want an apple slice? Well, half a slice now."
"You think this is funny, bastard?"
That's a no, then. The last apple slice was gracefully put into his mouth. Chewing, he answered, "Of course not. I think this is all unnecessary. Don't you?"
"Why the hell would I? What kind of shit medicine have they got you doped up on?"
Sadly, none. "I could ask the same thing of you. You're acting like a hysterical child right now."
Ed gave a cynical laugh. "Me? I'm the child here, in this situation? That's fucking rich."
"Fuck off!" He finally approached the bed, stomping the floor with every angry word. "Stop deflecting and just say it already!"
"I'm not repeating all that nonsense just to reaffirm your obscene need for self-pity, Fullmetal. Give it a rest. What's happened has happened, that's all there is to it."
With the look Ed was giving him, he might as well have spoken to him in Xingese. "That's it? You're not even going to acknowledge what happened?"
"No, because it's evident just from the tone of your voice that you've interpreted what happened in a vastly different way than I have."
"Yeah? Enlighten me."
Even with Edward standing and him sitting on the bed, they were at eye level with each other. This close, Mustang could see desperation scratching at the surface of those eyes. It irritated him, seeing Ed look like that, for such a ridiculous reason.
He narrowed his eyes and turned his head. "I'm too tired to go through this routine with you right now."
His voice was as hard and cold as a steel pole in winter. "Yes, Fullmetal. Routine. Because that is what this is. That's what it always is with you. Whenever something goes wrong while you are physically at the scene, you have this absurd need to place an astronomical amount of blame on yourself and an even more absurd need to let others know it. Tell me I'm wrong."
"You are!" Fullmetal shouted immediately. "You're unbelievably wrong, fuck! What happened back there was not just 'something going wrong', or however else you want to spin it."
"Nothing is being spun here but your perspective."
"What does that even mean? My perspective was pretty damn clear because I know what fucking happened, even if you won't say it. It was me acting on my own, fucking up, then you getting nearly killed because of it. Does that sound familiar or did all that blood loss fuck up your memory?"
"Did that concussion impede your ability to think?" Mustang snapped. "You acted on your own, yes, that is very much your own fault. One would say it was my fault for believing you can be trusted with simple orders to stay put. But the rest? Circumstantial."
Ed scoffed rudely. "Circumstantial?"
"Do you not like the word? How about subsidiary?"
"I know what that fucking word means, bastard, and you can take it and subsidiary and shove them up your ass."
"Don't be vulgar."
"I have to because you're not listening to me!" His automail fist was creaking and his flesh fist was white. "It's because I left the beach house that all this all happened! If I never left, then those Fire Nation soldiers wouldn't have caught me!"
"They caught you because they were ordered to, because they came here specifically in search of you and the others." Mustang countered fluidly.
But Edward wasn't done. "And if they didn't capture me in the first place then you and Katara and Aang wouldn't have had to get involved, wouldn't have had to rescue me – "
Mustang raised his voice – "We came because we followed the flare in the sky, because we wanted to, because we chose to do it – "
Ed raised his voice higher – "And because you all came, you all got attacked! Aang and Katara were put in danger, they could have gotten hurt, and you – "
They were yelling over each other but neither seemed willing to let the other finish – "We were being attacked and so we fought back, we would have done that for any situation – "
"And you kept telling me stay out of the way but I didn't listen – "
"I'm not going to fault you for defending yourself, Fullmetal! There were soldiers everywhere –"
Edward was now shouting. "That doesn't matter! I was the one who was supposed to get stabbed, not you! You pushed me out of the way!"
"Because I saw the danger and had the opportunity to stop it, Fullmetal!"
"I didn't fucking ask you to do that!"
"It was my decision!"
"I don't care! You shouldn't have done that! You should have just let me –"
"THAT IS ENOUGH, FULLMETAL!" Mustang bellowed.
Fullmetal flinched back as if struck.
A screeching silence blared through the room.
Mustang put a hand to his forehead. He couldn't recall the last time he shouted that loudly before. He certainly never raised it that high to Fullmetal, judging by the way the boy was openly staring at him, wide eyed and stunned.
"That's enough," he said again, quieter, softer. His head was aching dully, the world spinning. His hand covered his eyes, but through the space between his fingers he could see the pained expression on Edward's face.
He brought his hand down. Ed swallowed thickly, and avoided meeting his eyes. Mustang breathed out deeply through his nose. "Sit down, Fullmetal."
"I don't – " he was mumbling.
"Edward, just sit on the damn chair. Your standing is making me nervous."
Ed huffed, but obliged nonetheless. He crossed his arms stubbornly and turned his head away. The air was thick with somberness, like the mood during a funeral procession.
When the world stopped spinning, when his head stopped throbbing, Mustang spoke again. His voice was calm, collected, a clear contrast from his tone a few seconds ago. "Do you see now what I meant when I said routine?"
A sigh. "You do this everytime, Edward. No matter big or small the situation."
Ed's head whipped back to face him. "So how would you categorize this situation, then? 'Cause I think it's a pretty fucking huge one."
Mustang thought about it. "It's up there."
"You almost died," Edward deadpanned.
"But I didn't."
"But you could have. Because of me."
"Yes. You got stabbed, nearly died, bled out a fucking ocean, all because of me."
"I don't care. That's what happened. I was the one who was supposed to get gutted, that guy was aiming for me, but you took the hit for me."
"That had nothing to do with you."
Edward stood up so quickly he knocked the chair he was sitting on straight down. "How the FUCK –"
"Sit down, Fullmetal. Now."
Edward snarled something rude under his breath. He picked up the chair with a sour look and plopped back down on it heavily. Mustang nodded approvingly. "You misinterpreted what I meant. Naturally."
Ed scoffed but didn't say anything more. The Colonel continued, "What I meant was; that had nothing to do with you because it was my decision. You had zero control over my actions. It was through my own free will that I did what I did. You had nothing to do with it."
"You wouldn't have had to have done it if it wasn't because of me, so –"
Mustang raised a hand, stopping him. With earnest honesty, he asked, "Why are you so hell-bent on shouldering the blame?"
Ed's expression didn't change at the sudden question. Defiance flashed in his too bright eyes. "Because it's mine to bear."
The lack of deniability concerned Mustang more than the actual answer. "But I just told you it isn't."
Mustang leaned closer, the bed creaking underneath him. "Fullmetal, it's not your fault. I'm trying to communicate that to you, but you wont accept it. Why? Why do you want the blame when I'm telling you it's not yours? Not once has the thought of condemning you popped into my mind. Don't I get to decide who should be blamed, since I'm the one that nearly died?"
The muscles in Edward's neck jumped. He seemed to be sinking deeper and deeper into the small chair. "Because . . . because I deserve it." But even as he said it, he sounded and looked unsure.
"Because," his eyes jumped around, like he was searching the room for the answer. Then they landed on Mustang and he blurted, "Because it is my fault, OK? I don't care what you say. It is. I left the beach house! I left it even after you told me not to, and then all this shit happened!"
"Is that it? Fullmetal, don't worry. Once we're back in Amestris, you are definitely getting a formal dressing down for disobeying a direct order from a superior officer. I'm thinking of the punishment and ensuing paperwork as we speak. "
Edward rolled his eyes. "Bastard, don't try to make this into one of your stupid jokes. You know that's not what I meant."
"How so? That appears to be the only punishable offense in your narrative."
"You're not listening to me! It's what happened after!" he ruffled his hair in aggravation, pulling some strands from the ponytail. "It's because I left the beach house that all this happened, that you got hurt!"
"No." Mustang hardened his gaze. "What happened after was out of your control, out of everyone's control except for the people who intended to do it. You're not responsible for the actions of others, Fullmetal. You're not responsible for my actions. You didn't push me in front of the blade. I pushed myself. And I'd do it again, even if you didn't leave the beach house. Because that's my choice and mine alone. I allowed this to happen. Not you. Never you. Do you understand?"
Ed was blinking furiously, lips pursed so tightly it left a white outline around his mouth. "I . . ." he stuttered, but the words never came out. He doesn't want to believe it, Mustang realized sadly. He's so used to shouldering the guilt that he can't fathom the idea of not being accountable.
Ed sagged deeper in the seat. "You still got hurt," he mumbled after a beat.
As an involuntary reaction, Mustang felt his stomach twitch. The pain was brief and fleeting, but seemingly refusing to be ignored. To Edward, he said, "But I'll recover. Katara's already mended the wound. All that's left is to regain my energy and wait for my body to pump back all the blood I lost."
Ed paled, his eyes falling to his automail hand. "There was so much blood," he said hoarsely.
Mustang's chest felt as heavy as a block of stone at Ed's anguished face. It was a blur to him, getting stabbed and fading into unconsciousness, but Edward probably remembered it vividly. "I'm sorry you had to see that."
Ed bristled. "Don't fucking apologize, you asshole!"
"It must have been a very unpleasant thing to witness."
Ed looked away. He coughed uncomfortably, saying. "Yeah, well. I'm sure experiencing it wasn't a walk in the park either."
Mustang didn't bother agreeing or disagreeing. He just hummed dispassionately. He remembered getting stabbed, feeling the blood ooze out of him. He remembered hearing Ed shout at him, remembered Katara and Aang's voices. He was asleep, after that, but his dreams were merciless; he dreamt of Ishval, of corpses and of burnings, of corpses burning, of corpses burning him.
Ed turned his head to look at Mustang. He was glowering. "Don't pull that shit again."
Mustang pursed his lips, to keep himself from smiling. Of course he would say that. "I can't make that promise."
Mustang shrugged. "Sorry, Fullmetal. But you're my subordinate, my accountability. Under my jurisdiction, I have a responsibility to keep you away from harm."
"What? No you don't, you liar. And besides, we're in another freakin' world. You have no jurisdiction here."
"Didn't you know? The radius of my jurisdiction is centered by me."
Ed snorted. "You're so full of shit."
"I'll show you the paper work when we're back in Amestris if you don't believe me. I have complete jurisdiction around anything within fifty miles of me. We could be floating in space and you'd still have to take orders from me."
Fullmetal rolled his eyes spectacularly. A frown pulled at his face afterwards, and he looked thoughtful. After a length, he asked, "What do you think will happen . . . if we do actually manage to get back to Amestris?"
"I told you. A formal dressing down, and maybe I'll sanction you from leaving East City for a few weeks. That seems an appropriate punishment for insubordination."
"I'm not talking about that, you ass." He flexed his automail hand, watching as the fingers curled and uncurled. "I meant, if we get back . . . would anything have happened?"
"I don't follow," Mustang said honestly.
Ed sighed, craning his neck back. "I was thinking about it, while washing up. You know how you start thinking about random things when you're in the shower? Well, I was thinking about what's happening in Amestris, or what I think is happening, and it hit me. Does time pass differently here than it does Amestris? If we get back . . . would any time have passed since we left? Hawkeye was there during the transmutation – would we just pop back in that room after a second? She blinks and we're gone, she blinks again and we're back? All this crazy shit happened to us here, but what if over there it's as if we were gone for a second?"
Mustang hadn't considered that at all. He found himself at a loss for words, at a loss for an answer. Can that actually happen? There are no rules for hopping from one world to another, no guidebook. Anything could happen. A chill ran down his spine.
"I don't know," he answered truthfully, shaking his head. "I've always just assumed that we're on the same timeline. A day here is a day there. We've been here, what? Close to a week? Maybe that's how long its been there."
"Yeah, maybe. The problem is I don't know which one is worse. I don't know which one I'd want to happen. If it was all just one second in Amestris time, I think I'd lose my mind. To know that a week's events occurred in just one second? My brain would probably melt just trying to rationalize it. I'm pretty sure I'd start doubting it even happened, think it was all a dream. I'd eventually just . . . forget about it. Block it out. But on the other hand . . . "
Mustang spoke for him. "On the other hand, if a week has passed there, that means a week of no one knowing what happened to us has passed there. A week of people wondering where we went, why we left. Wondering if we'd ever come back."
"And I know that's what Al would be doing. He's probably worried sick. He definitely is. What is he doing now? Did they kick him out of the barracks? The room is under my name, and we only paid for the weekend. Did he go back to Resembool? Does he think I died? Does he think I abandoned him!? Colonel?"
Mustang reached out and grabbed his wrist. "Stop that, Fullmetal. I've told you already, Alphonse will be fine."
"How could you know?"
"Because I know what Hawkeye would do. Like you said, she was with us, in that room. She saw the circle, saw us get pulled into it. She knows what happened to us."
Recognition flashed in Edward's eyes. Mustang released his grip and continued, "She's doesn't hold her rank for nothing. Knowing her, the first person she probably got in contact with after we disappeared is Alphonse. She'd have him come to the apartment to have a look at Artfield's circle, see if he can make sense of it. She'll make sure he's looked after, taken care of. And most importantly she won't give up on us. You shouldn't either."
Ed frowned, defensive. "I haven't given up."
"You kept saying 'if'."
Mustang leaned back against the headboard. "Before. You kept saying 'if we get back to Amestris', not 'when'. Have you already given up hope and resigned yourself to defeat?"
Ed swelled up at the accusation. "No. I'm just considering the most realistic possibility."
"It would do you some good to be a little more optimistic."
"It really wont. With everything's that's happened so far, it's better to always expect the worst case scenario so you don't get your hopes up."
It was Mustang's turn to roll his eyes. "So is this what happens when you've been away from Alphonse for so long? You're such a downer. Next time I get sent to another world, I'll make sure Alphonse is with me."
Ed snorted. "If Al were here instead of you, I bet we'd be out of this world within an hour after coming. Al probably wouldn't even be here because he isn't stupid enough to get into this mess."
"So we're in agreement, then. Alphonse is the superior Elric brother."
"What? No, hold on, I never said –"
A series of muffled noises made them both stiffen; first it was the quick opening and closing of a door, then the hurried sound of shuffling footsteps. There were voices, too, low then high then one voice then multiple talking over one another. Then the sound of those footsteps approaching. Edward was already standing when the bedroom door was pushed open.
"Oh, even better! You're both here and awake, awesome," Sokka was saying as he barged into the room without preamble. Katara, Aang and Toph were on his tail, looking varying degrees of confused. A feeling of dread prickled Mustang's skin. Something's happened.
Katara grabbed her brother's arm when he approached the bed. "Would you just slow down, Sokka? Geez."
"What's going on?" Mustang asked.
Toph answered him. "He just barged in rambling about how he's got bad news like a raging lunatic. Wouldn't even tell us what it is."
"Because I need everyone to hear it all at once!" Sokka said. "It's crazy bad news, guys. It's – hey, where's Zuko?"
"He went out to get some stuff for me," Katara said. Then her gaze fell on the empty plate beside his bed and she smiled. "Oh, good! You ate all the apples. Are you feeling better now?"
"Much better, actually. Thank you."
"This isn't the time to be talking about apples!" Sokka exclaimed, waving his hand around widely. "I've got bad news! The worst news!"
"So then tell us what it is already," Aang huffed. He stood next to Toph by the foot of his bed. Aang looked both confused and bit annoyed; Toph just looked downright irritated.
"It's probably something stupid, like the market doesn't have any beef jerky or something."
"It's worse than that, Toph! You can't even imagine!"
Ed made an offended noise and turned to Katara. "Hey, wait a sec. Why does Mustang get apples and not me? I'm hungry, too, you know."
"Because Mustang stayed in bed like I asked, while you just up and left the second you woke up."
Mustang and Aang shared a look. "I told you he wouldn't be able to stay put," Mustang said. Aang stuck his tongue out childishly.
Ed said to Katara, "How's that on me? You told me to go wash up!"
"And to come back after so I can give you some clothes, which, by the way, where did you get the clothes you're wearing now?"
Ed shrugged. "There was a closet in the room with some clothes in it. I just transmuted them to look decent."
"So you just stole them?"
Toph whistled. "Wow, Ed. That's low."
"I didn't steal them! I just took them and made them better." Katara sent him a withering look and he said, "Hey, for the price I paid, I think I'm entitled to some of the old man's nasty clothes. They smell like shit, too, so it's not like I wanted to take them."
Mustang frowned. "Price you paid?"
"EXACTLY!" Sokka shouted. Every head turned to his direction and Sokka sagged in relief. "That's what I'm trying to tell you guys! Are you listening now? Huh? Everyone paying attention?"
"Get on with it already!" Toph snapped.
Sokka raised his hands in a placating manner. "OK, OK! Don't bite my head off. Jeez." He clapped his hands. "Alright, so! Here's the thing: I noticed the doctor guy was acting all weird and suspicious this morning, so I thought I'd go and follow him. Fresh on his tail, as cunning and sleuth as a foxbat, I trailed behind him as he went into the market square. That's when I saw it; I noticed he was holding something in his hand, something he had hidden in his pocket, and lo and behold, it was the gold Ed gave him! He just took it!"
"Sokka," Katara admonished tiredly. "You dumby. Of course he took it. It was his to take in the first place. We gave it to him."
"Is that your bad news?" Toph asked. "Lame."
"No, no, there's more –"
"Gold?" Mustang pronounced the word slowly. His eyes narrowed, and he turned his icy stare to Fullmetal, who stilled and looked away. ". . . What gold?"
All eyes moved to Edward now. The kid coughed, scratched his neck, looked anywhere but at Mustang. He shifted from one foot to the other, then mumbled, "Uhm, you know. Just, uh, just regular gold."
"And where, exactly,did you get this gold from?"
"He used his alchemy to make it –"
"Shut up, Toph!"
"What!?" Mustang thundered. He sat up in the bed, pushing the thin blanket away. "You transmuted gold? Gold, Fullmetal!? Are you out of your mind?"
"It's not real gold, Colonel! Relax!" Edward said quickly, backing away. "I – I just made it look real, and told him it was real . . . he wanted payment for fixing you and we didn't have any money! What else was I supposed to do?"
"It wasn't real?" Toph said, disappointed.
Aang muttered, "Sure looked it."
"Not break the law, Fullmetal, that's what you're supposed to do!"
"That's not a law in this world!" Ed countered back. "And I told you, it wasn't real!"
"You sold it to a man under the guise that it was real. That is without a doubt illegal. Not to mention you blatantly lied to the man!"
Katara folded her arms. "Ed, how could you?"
"What?" he whipped his head to her. "Are you serious?"
Toph counted off, "First you give the guy fake gold, then you lie to him?"
"Don't forget he stole his clothes," Aang piped.
"And you stole the poor man's clothes."
Aang shook his head. "That's just cruel."
"Very," Toph agreed.
"Oh my God," Ed groaned, holding his head.
"Fullmetal, this is grounds for a court-martial, you know."
Ed gawked. "A court-martial!? Are you senile? Do you even know where we are right now?"
"That sounds bad," Toph commented.
Aang asked aloud, "Does that make Ed a criminal?"
"Ed," Katara admonished. "I thought you were better than this."
Ed sputtered. "Me? What? How? You guys are all insane. Why's everyone picking on me? I thought this was Sokka's thing!"
"It is!" Sokka whined loudly. He positioned himself in the center of all of them and said, "Guys, stop ignoring me! I have bad news!"
"You said that already," Toph quipped. "And it wasn't any type of news."
"That wasn't the bad news, though!" he huffed. "There's more. Listen." He took a deep breath and started, "So the doctor took Ed's illegal, fake gold –
" – into the market square, right? You'd think he'd be trying to sell it, right? Well, that's what I thought, too, before I saw him give the gold to a Fire Nation soldier. He ratted on us. There's soldiers swarming this entire town as we speak!"
A shocked silence ensued. Everyone openly stared at Sokka mouth ajar. Then Toph said, "Idiot! Why didn't you just say that in the first place!"
"I tried, but you guys kept talking about apples and Ed's criminal record!"
"This is bad," Mustang stated needlessly. He looked at Sokka. "Do they know we're here?"
"Here, as in this house? Definitely. I couldn't hear the doctor talk but I'd be surprised if he didn't tell them our location. The market square is probably a twenty minute walk from here, and I sprinted back the second I saw the soldiers, so I'd say we have, maybe, ten minutes before we're found."
"That's not enough time," Katara said, shaking her head. No, Mustang thought. It's enough, if everyone can hurry. He wondered how long he could stay on his feet, in this condition, and if he'd only end up slowing everyone down. I'm not depleted, I can make it.
"How did they find us?" Aang asked. "How'd they know we were on this island? We picked it randomly, and no one followed us when we left!"
"Maybe the soldiers were already here to begin with?" Toph said.
Katara shook her head. "No. When I was looking for a doctor, I didn't see any soldiers. Zuko said there's no one stationed here."
Mustang stood up slowly, hand on the headboard. His vision blurred for a quick second, but when he blinked everything refocused. "Doesn't matter. What matters now is we don't panic, and we get out of this house as quickly and calmly as we can – "
The front door opening sounded, and everyone froze, holding their breaths. There's way they made it here this quickly, Mustang thought. He was proven right when Zuko's voice rang out. "Hey! Are you guys still here?"
"We're in here!" Katara called, her voice high in anxiety, a hand on her chest. The others all released a relieved breath.
Zuko appeared in a rush, breathing hard and visibly sweating. His eyes roamed the room, landing on each one of them, before he said, "I have bad news."
Sokka waved him away. "Don't bother, pal. I already told them about the Fire Nations soldiers. You're too late."
"Yeah? Did you also tell them that Azula is here, too? With a dozen soldiers at her back, marching over here this very second?"
Sokka dropped his hand. ". . . Oh."
Mustang was rigid with tension. Ed shot him an alarmed look, and for some reason all he could think was, worst-case scenario. This is definitely the worst-case scenario.
Then Toph crossed her arms and asked, "So. Can we panic now?"
A/N; 3 chapters left.
Don't forget to leave a review!
Next Chapter: TBD
-Ed and Azula talk.