yuuo: (Pandora's Box)
[personal profile] yuuo posting in [community profile] pandorasuniverse
Character/Series: Edward Elric, Cast; AU to the original series
Rating: MA
Notes: Written based on the 'what if' idea that Ed had never been able to bind Al's soul to the armor. Please heed all warnings. All chapters can be found here.
Title: Pandora's Box: Chapter 11: The Chain
Author: [personal profile] yuuo
Word Count: 8943
Summary: Riza spent the entire time we were out fussing at me




and if you don't love me now
you will never love me again
i can still hear you saying
you would never break the chain
-Fleetwood Mac

Riza spent the entire time we were out fussing at me. Drove me crazier than a shithouse rat. I couldn't stand her fussing. We'd stop at an inn for the night, and she'd set out my clothes for me after I'd changed, fresh and ready for me in the morning. Appreciated the thought, didn't actually care for that, because it meant she got into my suitcase. Probably found that picture. And that picture was private, I didn't share it with anybody.

The first time she tried to clean my weapon for me, I snarled at her and pulled it away before it could even be disassembled. "I can do it myself," I growled. Cleaning that thing was one of my few stress relievers, I wasn't about to let her take it away.

She constantly pushed at me to talk to her, to tell her what was wrong, what had happened. I could stonewall her easier than I had Mustang, because I outranked her. I didn't have to listen to shit from her.

I corrected her every time she called me by name, instead of rank, getting more and more prickly about her invasive behavior. I started hiding behind my military training to keep her out. Which was a bad thing. My training had involved abuse- sexual, physical, and verbal. The more she pushed, the nastier I got towards her.

Notice, though, how I now call her Riza. There's a reason for that.

One night, I was working on my research notes before bed, sitting in my sleepwear, a simple pair of sweats and a t-shirt. Riza still had not changed for bed, sitting in her uniform across from me.

"Edward?"

I didn't look up. "You know better than to call me that."

"Yes, sir, I do, but I'm trying to speak to Edward, not Fullmetal. I know you're hiding behind that wall, Edward, I'm not going to hurt you. I just want to help."

"Shut up," I snapped, my pencil breaking in my hand as I clenched my hands into fists.

"Edward-"

I admit, I lost it. After what had been, at this point, a week of this constant bullshit, I was at my wits end. I didn't have much patience to begin with, the invasiveness scared the shit out of me, I have always had a tendency to react to fear with anger, and my temper had become violent over the years. I grabbed my weapon out of its holster, slung over the back of my seat, and got up, grabbing Riza by her hair and yanking her out of her chair and onto her knees.

Just like I'd been taught up north.

"I said don't call me that, soldier, I expect obedience, I fucking outrank you," I snarled, holding the sidearm to her head.

She trembled, looking up at me. "I'm sorry, Edward, I-"

It was out of my mouth before I could help it, echoing back words I'd heard before. "There are better uses for a soldier's mouth than to smart off to a superior officer. Obedience should be absolute, Lieutenant"

I'm ashamed of those words, that they ever came out of my mouth. But abuse creates a vicious cycle, and those of us who were trained by those words sometimes spit them out ourselves. To be fair, I never intended on her actually doing anything, but maybe piddling in submission. The safety on my gun was on, I had no intention of her touching me like that. I just wanted to scare her into getting off my back.

Unfortunately, she didn't realize this and did exactly what I didn't intend. I was in too much shock when she reached into my pants that I couldn't do anything but hold her hair and ride it out.

Afterwards, I dropped my gun and dashed for the bathroom, where I promptly got sick and started crying like it'd been me in her position again. I was horrified by what I'd done, and despite what Riza said, it was me that did it, even if I'd done it unintentionally. I'd never meant for her to actually do that, but she had, and rape isn't one of those things that can be mutual.

I don't know how long I spent puking my guts out before Riza came in, crouched beside me and put her arms around me. "Oh Edward, I'm sorry," she whispered. "I didn't know the safety was on, you didn't mean to. I'm so sorry. Is this what they did to you?"

I heaved again, trembling from head to toe as there was nothing left to give, but still I kept dry heaving, retching painfully. She began to pet my hair, kissing the top of my head. "Edward, it's okay, they'll never hurt you like that again. You didn't mean to, I know that, it's okay. I'm okay, see? And I'll never let anyone hurt you like that again."

"You're so stupid," I whispered. "Why- you're so stupid," I sobbed.

"Because it wasn't you that hurt me, it was him," she said quietly. "I'll be okay, I'm a big girl. Now come on, let's get you laying down, you'll feel better. I've already put away your notes and weapon."

For once, feeling too battered to fight her, I let her lead me back out of the bathroom to the main area of our inn room and lead me to the bed. I waved her off wordlessly- I didn't need tucked in. I was actively hoping this was just another nightmare as I crawled on top of the bed and curled up on my side, facing away from her bed.

The next thing I knew, I felt the bed shift as Riza laid down next to me, curling up against my back and holding me. "We'll make this all right, Edward. You didn't do anything wrong," she whispered, petting my hair.

I felt dead. Like everything inside of me had temporarily shut down instead of facing what I'd done. Make it okay? How? Such a thought seemed foreign to me. I'd hurt her, the way I'd been hurt. Just because she seemed to be handling it well didn't mean it hadn't hurt her somehow.

I turned to face her, feeling too tired to do more than a slight narrowing of my eyes. "How is this okay?" I demanded in a voice that cracked more than usual.

She pulled me against her, kissing the side of my face. "Because," she whispered, "I'm not doing anything that I don't want to do. I want to help you. That's all any of us have ever wanted to do. You didn't do anything wrong, I'm not hurt."

It was a lie, but it broke me anyway. A temporary break, because the walls I hid behind never truly went away, but they cracked, letting out a flood of emotions I'd held back, stomped down, ignored, and ran from as I curled up tighter against her, crying hysterically.

Riza kissed my forehead, kissed that goddamn scar that would probably never fade from the first time I defied Archer, petting my hair and holding me tightly. "It's okay, Edward," she whispered, over and over again until I almost started to believe her.

We started carrying on an affair, after that. It was the only way I could bring myself after that first time to let her touch me and hold me like I needed to be touched and held. I'd been out of contact with people for so long, I hadn't had a simple hug since the day I left Rizenbul. But my walls remained up, still unable to let her just fuss at me, except through something more primal.

I'm not exactly a gentle lover. I never hurt her, I would've as soon as never touched her again as hurt her. But neither of us were interested in gentle lovemaking. It was raw, animal sex, a basic human companionship that I had been denied so long, it seemed foreign to me that I would have it now, in the form it came in.

I had never wanted to be touched that way again, but it felt like it was washing away all the negative associations it'd had for me and making it something good, something okay, an actual sign of love. I knew she didn't love me like that, any more than I loved her that way. But I believed, at least during that time, that I was cared about, and safe to accept that. I wasn't tainting her, she was healing me.

We took to a daily routine of driving all day until we found another inn, then dinner and then upstairs to settle in. She would sit quietly with a romance book she'd read three times already while I tried to decipher Marcoh's notes. Then we'd fall into bed until we were tired and sore and curl up together, the only time I could allow anything resembling real affection. She'd wake up early the next morning, fuss around in the bathroom, get two cups of coffee from downstairs and bring them up, set out clothes for me on the unused bed, and then set out our weapons and our cleaning kits. I'd wake up about then, take my turn in the bathroom, then change into my clothes for the day. By that time, the coffee had cooled to drinkable temperature.

One morning, I woke up with her at the table instead of in bed with me, as usual. I had grown to hate the feeling of being alone in bed. "Riza?"

She looked up at me. "Yes, Edward?"

"Next time, wake me up when you get up," I signed. I didn't like being alone in bed. It let the nightmares come back.

That was one thing I noticed about sleeping with her (literally, not the other way, although I'm sure it contributed). I didn't have nightmares nearly as often, and I was given to fewer nocturnal wanderings. I stayed in bed, instead of having to get up to puke and wander around until I was calm enough to try to sleep again.

A month passed before I thought to check for new orders. I'd been told to stay off the radar, and I'd done that, but I realized through the haze of everything going on, that we should check to see if we'd been ordered back to East finally or not.

I didn't want to, because that meant losing Riza. Losing my only human contact. But those walls I'd hid behind were patched, no longer broken, only temporarily cast aside. I could feel them, sturdy as ever, as I slipped back behind them to protect myself from losing Riza. I'd lose her company, there was no question, so now it was time to hide behind Fullmetal and take the loneliness.

Over the years, I would slip back into a town with a military station every once in awhile to find out if orders had come in since I'd left the last one. It was a good way to put off orders I didn't wanna do without outright defying them.

I'd been putting it off longer this time than usual, not quite willing to go back to the real world. I hated myself for it; Al was counting on me to keep going through this real world I hated until I found the Stone, or something- anything- that could pay the cost to get him back. But back in this new world I'd discovered, this world where none of that existed, didn't matter, it was like a siren's song to me. It was a rest from the fear and the anger and the hate that had become so much a part of my world.

I didn't want to stop at that military base. But enough time had passed- long since passed, actually- that I didn't have much choice.

"May I help you?" The sergeant at the front desk questioned me with a tone of disdain, eyeing my civilian attire. I held up my watch and the sergeant saluted. "My apologies, sir. How can I assist you?"

I tucked my watch back in my pocket. "Are there any orders for the Fullmetal Alchemist from East Headquarters?"

"Yes, sir, there are. They've been going out all over the Eastern District," the sergeant confirmed, digging around through paperwork as he spoke.

I bit back a noise of frustration. First Mustang tells me to be impossible to find, then he sends out orders all over the district?

At least I knew I'd done my job right this way.

"Here you are, sir," the sergeant said, handing over a thin folder with papers secured inside. "Your orders."

"Thank you," I signed- a violent nutcase I may have been as far as some people were concerned, but ill-mannered I was not- taking the orders from the man. A glance inside showed what I expected; Riza and I were to report back in to East HQ.

I wondered what Mustang was up to that he wanted Riza to stay with me. I doubted it was just because of Scar. Mustang was up to something that kept him occupied all this time, I would bet money on it. It was just a matter of what.

Well, I'd find out soon enough. For right now, I had to figure out how to tell Riza her assignment with me was over. Then I'd have to figure out how to tell myself.

Play time was over. It was time to get back to work.

I didn't tell Riza right away. I hid the orders in my suitcase and we traveled aimlessly for awhile that day. I sat on that little secret all day, actually, until late that night, after we'd had what was essentially one last roll in the hay before I said anything.

I got up a couple hours after she'd fallen asleep, grabbing my old harmonica out of my bag and settling in at the window, quietly playing a song I learned on the field. It was one of those songs designed to make you cry, one that one of the other men at Olivia had taught me.

Riza sat up shortly after the first few notes, covering herself with the blanket as she peered around in the darkness, finally spotting me. "Edward? What's... what is it? Did you have another nightmare?"

I stopped playing, looking at the harmonica instead of her. "You know, I learned to play this from a whore. Took it out into the field with me. O'Riley loved it. Couldn't play it to save his life, but he tried."

She looked at me in confusion, but she remained quiet, letting me speak.

"Farrand hated this thing," I went on, "because O'Riley couldn't play it. We were already dying in the field, we didn't need killin' any faster, he'd said."

"O'Riley and Farrand, they were friends of yours?" Riza asked.

I shrugged. "We worked the field together. You don't have a lot of choice about trusting your life to them. Didn't work out so well." I looked up at her. "You know that this, all of this, it wasn't because of love or anything, right?"

She closed her eyes. "I'm well aware of it, Edward," she assured me. "May I ask what has brought all of this up?"

I hopped down out of the window sill, walking over to the other bed where my suitcase lay. I opened it up, searching through some papers that were in there, before pulling out the thin manilla envelope. I tossed it onto the bed in front of Riza. "We've been ordered back to East Headquarters."

She released a slow breath. "Immediately?"

I nodded. "Those orders have been going out all over the east district."

"There should be a train we can catch tomorrow morning. I'll turn the car in."

"Good idea. You may as well get some sleep, Lieutenant, we have a long day's trip in front of us tomorrow."

"Yes, sir," she said, and just like that, we slipped out of the affair and back into our military roles. It was kinda depressing how easy it was. I drew back behind my walls and she was no longer Riza, but Lieutenant Hawkeye. Just two well-trained dogs of the military.

***


We arrived in East City late in the work day, but not so late that Mustang would be gone from the office. We went straight to his office, and both of us ignored Havoc and the others in the outer office as we knocked on Mustang's inner office door.

"Come in," we heard from the other side and Hawkeye opened the door, letting me go in first. We both saluted once the door was shut.

"Fullmetal and Lieutenant Hawkeye reporting for duty, sir," Hawkeye said.

Mustang looked up at us, and I can only imagine what went through his head, seeing both of us saluting and presenting ourselves like perfect soldiers. "At ease, you two," he said, setting his pen down. "Glad to see you both back, safe and sound. Any further troubles with Scar?"

"No, sir," Hawkeye said, taking over for me in speaking. That was fine with me.

"Good, good." He looked over at me. "And Liore, Edward. I know I got your report, and I saw the site myself-" he looked at Hawkeye "-and you can shoot me for the deceit later-" he looked back to me "-but I have to ask myself. Why did you choose that route? There were children in there."

Ah, there it was. He didn't want Hawkeye to come storming after him to Liore.

Not my business though. So I just answered. "It was a field of battle, sir, I couldn't assume anybody was unarmed. They were given a chance to surrender and failed to take that chance. So they were treated as enemy soldiers."

He frowned, then sat back. "Very military of you, Edward."

"Thank you, sir." I knew he hadn't meant it as a compliment, but I pretended to take it as one anyway, to avoid another conversation like at Hughes's place.

"Mm. Fullmetal, will you step out for a moment? I have to speak to the lieutenant alone. But don't go far, I have new orders for you."

I saluted and stepped out, mentally groaning to myself. More orders, meaning more time away from my research. I settled against the wall outside his door, staring blankly at nothing as I waited. Minutes ticked away. Mustang closed the blinds to his window in the door. More minutes ticked by.

Finally Hawkeye stepped out, looking all the world like she'd just been beaten, by the look on her face. She looked at me with a thousand mile stare, then walked back out of the office. I hurried back into the office, closing the door. "What'd you do to R- the lieutenant?" I demanded.

Mustang caught my slip. "Riza? I sent her home for the day. She needs a day to recuperate from traveling before she settles behind a desk again," he said with a dark look on his face.

I froze. Fraternization was a highly punishable offense in the military, and I worried for not my safety, but the safety of my rank and watch. I went ramrod straight, staring at a spot just over Mustang's shoulder. "Of course, sir."

Mustang opened a folder on his desk, and held a sheet of paper out to me. Wordlessly, I took it, reading over it. Then I paled, snapping my gaze up to Mustang quickly. "Is this a joke, sir?"

Mustang shook his head. "It's real. You're to transfer to Central to be under Führer Bradley's direct command immediately, barring anything medical that needs to be taken care of."

I looked back down at the orders in dismay, carefully trying to conceal it. "It was because of Liore, wasn't it?"

Mustang sighed. "Well, I can't say you didn't catch some attention for how you handled that. It was... efficient, and properly military, just the kind of action Bradley likes. I don't know what's caught their attention, Edward, but you've caught it, and you're being transferred out of my command and into the führer's. I wish you well."

My stomach fell down somewhere around my knees as I looked back at the orders. "I have to make a stop in Rizenbul. My automail was damaged by Scar," I said quietly, wanting to ball up the orders and throw them away like they'd never existed. I had angered Mustang plenty, but he'd always been enormously fair, and always gave me a long leash to run on. Bradley would inevitably run a tighter ship and continued failures in the Stone were not likely to be tolerated.

Fuck. Fuck fuck fuck fuck fuck. And just for good measure, fuck.

"I'll pass that along to Central, then. They'll know when to expect you."

"Thank you, sir." I hesitated, then lifted my hand in salute. "It's been an honor, sir."

That dark look melted at the edges as he smiled faintly, then saluted. "It's been an honor, Fullmetal. Now go on, you have a train to catch."

With reluctance, I dropped my salute and left, taking my suitcase with me and leaving behind four years of my life.

I didn't like the end; I realized I'd grown attached to Mustang and his crew. They'd been kind to me, despite my continued efforts at stonewalling them at every turn, and that kind of devotion and affection was hard to find. It had actually kept the edge off the worst of my demons for those years. I don't think I would've been able to keep myself from hurting more people than I already had if I'd had a commanding officer like Archer the whole time.

It was about two in the morning when my train pulled in at Rizenbul, jerking me awake. I sat up, rubbing blearily at my eyes before grabbing my suitcase and getting off the train. Once away from the tracks, the nocturnal sounds of crickets and bullfrogs serenaded me as I made my way up the hill towards my home. I'd stop at the Rockbells' in the morning, I wasn't going to wake them up at two in the morning. The last thing I needed was a wrench to the head. Not that Winry had done that in quite awhile; somewhere along the way, she stopped, about the same time she stopped smiling at my return. Her worry over me had gotten in the way of smiles, I knew that.

Part of me wished I could tell her something, the way we used to be able to, way back before Al and I started harboring the terrible secret of plotting to resurrect our mother. But those days were done and the more that happened, the more concerned she got until she couldn't even give me a smile. Some tiny voice in my head accused her of being afraid of me and if she was, that was just fine. Being afraid meant they didn't pry. I didn't want my family to see where that went. I hadn't wanted anyone to see that far into my world, really. But that damn lieutenant...

A transmutation opened the sealed door on the house and I stepped in, coughing at a breath full of dust. All the dust that had been aloft in the air when the house was sealed had settled and greeted me with a musty, old sort of smell. The house felt stuffy. I would have to unseal windows and open them tonight and clean it up tomorrow. More time I could borrow before having to go see the führer. Maybe, if I were lucky, Bradley would die of a heart attack or something before I got there if I could just buy enough time.

A glance back outside at the sky proved that there was unlikely to be a storm overnight at this point, so opening the windows would be safe enough. That was the first thing I tended to, heading around the house and unsealing and opening each one just enough to draw the musty smell out of the house. Once that was done, I lit a candle, taking it with me up the stairs to the bedroom that used to be Al's and mine.

It hadn't changed since the last time I was here, just a few short months ago, but I never stopped being amazed at how small it seemed in comparison to my memories. Of course, I was a lot bigger than I'd been in my memories, too. The whole house seemed smaller, actually, and I wasn't sure I liked the change in perspective, no matter how much I used to wish I were taller and bigger. I wondered if the house seemed this small to my mother, too, or if it was just me.

Venturing into my mother's room, I checked on all the ghosts that haunted the house, making sure everything was asleep for the night. Nothing stirred, just the breeze through the open windows.

Back downstairs, the kitchen lacked my mother's singing, and the scent of her apple pie. The living room was deathly quiet, empty of the comforting sound of our mother's knitting needles clacking away into the nighttime hours as she hummed. The only sounds to be heard was the nocturnal orchestra outside and the only sign of life was the reflection of my candle off the glass of the windows.

Heading into my father's study, I kicked off my boots. Until the day Al was home, I couldn't stomach the idea of sleeping in my own room alone. Here in the study, on the couch, I could sleep there. The open door to the laboratory stared at me as I unfolded the knitted blanket from the back of the couch and spread it out in preparation for bed. I glanced behind me, staring at the doorway.

Inside, the lab was clean, having used alchemy to help me remove all traces of the transmutation that had changed my life so much. I'd wanted the home perfect, the way it had been before so Al had a home to come back to that wouldn't frighten him, or remind him of that awful night.

I carried enough reminders of that night, Al didn't need to carry them too.

"I'll have to teach you sign," I said to no one in particular. "That's okay, you always liked language class better than I did." I frowned. "I'd ask Riza to teach you, since she did so well with me, but I can't ask anything more of her than I already have."

So much I'd taken from her and I knew it. Our short time together had damaged something in her, led her too far into the darkness of my own world. My dirty little secret I hoped to keep from the world. Everything in Drachma, I'd sooner tell it than what I did to that poor woman. But she'd been right there the whole way with me, hadn't she?

I settled down on the couch, curling up against the nausea in my stomach at the thought of Riza. I already missed her, the comfort of the warm presence of a person next to me, someone who didn't flinch in the face of my rage, didn't back down from everything as I tried to get her to leave me alone. Someone who cared. I'd missed that feeling of being cared for so much that it physically hurt. Winry cared, I supposed, but I was even more loathe to let her into my world than I had been with the lieutenant. The lieutenant, at least, was an adult and had seen far more than Winry ever would, god willing.

"I'm sorry," I whispered. Sorry to whom, I couldn't even be sure. Riza, for everything I did to her. Al for failing him. Winry for shutting her out so hard. Anybody. Everybody. Anyone that could grant me a reprieve from the overwhelming guilt I kept stockpiling into my life. But nobody could do that, not really, and I knew it. This burden was one I was stuck with for the rest of my life. Maybe getting Al back would make up for some of it. Maybe someday, I could explain to Winry what those scars on my back were from. Maybe someday I could do something to make things up to Riza.

For now, though, the guilt weighed heavily on me. I closed my eyes, letting myself cry one last time, alone this time instead of with the comforting presence of the lieutenant, until I fell asleep.

***


I sealed up my house about midmorning, after I'd gone through and dusted the place a little, and closed the windows back up. I tromped down the hill to Winry and Grandma Pinako's place and knocked on their door. Winry answered and watched me silently for a moment, then frowned. "Ed, what're you doing here? We just finished the last surgery you'll need. What- ... what happened, is something wrong?"

I set my suitcase down and pushed up my coat and shirt sleeves, showing her the damage to my arm. She sighed. "Ed, how did you manage that?" she demanded, leading me inside.

"Got in a fight," I said. "Bastard used alchemy to deconstruct it."

Winry gave me a sharp look. "You shouldn't go into such dangerous things."

I gave her a flat look. "I'm military, it's part of the job. Besides, I didn't pick this fight, he did."

"That was always your excuse when you were younger," she said. "Out of the coat and shirt, lemme see what I'm working with."

I set my suitcase down, draped my coat over it, and shrugged out of my shirt. She stepped over, looking over my automail arm. "Seems superficial. Only one piece was damaged." She tested responses from my hand, making sure the damage hadn't caught any of the wires nestled below the piece of steel I used for my blade. "What kind of fight did you get into?"

"Serial killer after State Alchemists. He didn't like the fact that I could transmute a blade from my automail, so he destroyed the blade."

She looked at me in horror. "A - Ed, you... oh god. Ed, you could've been killed!"

"I've almost been killed a lot of times, Winry, now's not the time to worry about it. Mustang had me on the run for a month to avoid this guy. I know better than to tangle with him if I can help it." I sat down on the couch. "I have an assignment in Central. How long will it take to repair?"

She stared at me with a sad look. "You've been in a lot of danger since joining the military," she said softly. "Maybe you should consider finding a new job."

"I like my work," I lied. Well, partially lied. I liked the actual research part of it, it was everything else I hated. "Your automail takes care of me."

That got a faint smile from her, the first I'd seen from her in a long time. It turned into one of those dazzling smiles that were so fake they were painful to look at. "That's right it does. 'Cause I'm the best automail mechanic in Amestris. Well, except for Grandma."

"You didn't answer me before," I reminded her. "How long will this take to repair?"

Her smile dimmed back to the dull look I'd become used to. "Oh, only a couple hours at best. Did you want to visit your mom and brother while I do that?"

I looked down at the floor. "Yeah. A walk would do me good, anyway." After she'd detached my arm, I redressed and stepped outside, feeling a bit off-balance. After a few minutes of orienting myself to the new weight distribution without my arm, I started down the road towards the cemetery. I'd walked that road a lot of times since Mom died. I used to walk it just as part of my rehab when I first got automail, just like I'd used cleaning my house as part of rehab.

Both graves were waiting when I got there. I ignored Al's for the moment, crouching down in front of Mom's. There were no flowers in front of the grave this time; it must've been awhile since Winry had come up here.

"Hi, Mom," I whispered. I had a habit of talking to graves as if someone could answer me, probably because of Al's grave. I knew he wasn't dead, and maybe, somehow, my words reached him in the Gate. I could dream, anyway.

I didn't know what to say this time, though. 'I miss you' didn't seem enough, even though it was the truth. God, I missed her. I missed the way she made everything seem all right. I missed the comfort. I missed her singing, her hands, the way they'd ruffle my hair when I did something good. I missed the smell of her apple cobbler baking, and the taste of her homemade bread.

There really wasn't much about her I didn't miss, honestly. But she was gone, for the last six years, and nothing was bringing her back.

I looked at the other, hateful grave. The sign of giving up. The false declaration that my brother was dead, when I knew damn well he wasn't. He was trapped in that hellacious thing, not dead... but not here, either. And that burned. It burned like a hole in my chest where a heart should be. "I'm sorry, Al. I know I keep promising, but I do promise to get you out. I almost have the research figured out, and I'll be in Central soon, I can investigate that lab. Maybe it'll have what we need. Soon, I promise."

I ran my fingers along the carved name, then balled my hand into a fist and smacked the grave soundly. Not dead. He wasn't dead.

After lingering a few more minutes, I stood and headed back towards Winry's place. My arm wasn't quite done, but I told her to take her time, I was in no hurry to get to Central. That puzzled her- usually I couldn't get away fast enough, but I wasn't eager to go to Bradley's command. I had no idea what it'd mean for me and I didn't like unknowns like that.

I caught the evening train bound for Central, my arm in full repair. I killed the time sleeping or reading Marcoh's work, although that made me hungry. I wished I could remember the name of the town I met him in so I could go there and smack him for disguising his work as a cook book.

Central hadn't changed in the short time I'd been away. As I started to make my way out of the station, an officer in uniform stopped me. "Fullmetal, sir?" he said. I raised an eyebrow at him expectantly. He snapped a salute. "My name is Captain Marsters. I'm to escort you to Führer Bradley's office, sir."

I looked at him like someone watching a bug under glass, just to scare him a little. Oh go on, say it. I'm an asshole. I never pretended I wasn't.

Marsters, to his credit, held his salute and didn't betray any sign of fear. Finally, bored of trying to break him, I shrugged. "So lead the way." He escorted me to a vehicle, which he held the door to the back seat for me at. I wasn't used to this kind of treatment, but I decided to just play along, rather than causing a ruckus. I didn't need more trouble.

I slouched in my seat the whole way to headquarters, where Marsters stopped the car and again, held the door for me before I had a chance to open it myself. "This way, sir," he said, leading me through the front door and down halls that I had only been down once or twice in my entire time in the military.

I recognized the führer's office when we got there. The captain stepped in ahead of me, standing to the side and saluting as I stepped past him. "The führer is expecting you," he said.

I barely glanced at him as I walked over to the führer's inner office door and knocked. I heard Bradley tell me to come in, and I opened the door, walking in. "Fullmetal reporting for duty, sir." It was vaguely like stepping backwards in time and it wasn't a pleasant stroll as I pulled on my best military training.

He looked up and returned my salute with that perpetual smile of his. "Welcome back to Central. Glad to see you finally made it. Did you have to have much work done on your automail?"

I shook my head, dropping my arm to speak. "No, sir. Just a single part replaced. The casing had been damaged in my tangle with Scar."

"Ah yes, Scar. Handling him will be one of your assignments while you're here." That thought cheered me somewhat. If I had to be in a shitty situation, at least I got to beat someone's face in for it. "Now, Colonel, I'm sure you'll find your stay in Central quite satisfactory."

I blinked as my brain careened into a rock. "Colonel, sir? I thought that promotion in clearance rank was only to that of a lieutenant colonel."

Bradley grinned. "Oh yes, did I forget to add that into my transfer orders? You're officially a uniform-wearing colonel, with an office of your own, here in Central, and you answer to nobody but me."

I stared at him. I squeaked a bit. I stared some more, then raised my hands to sign. They tangled up on themselves at first, then I tried again. "An office, sir? I don't know how to run an office, I'm not even seventeen. I know how to research, that's about it."

That was a desperate grab onto something to avoid the thought of the uniform. I didn't want it, and I hoped protesting something else would get me out of it, without having to admit to anything.

"Nonsense, you have several other talents. You've proven yourself an admirable officer and a damn good soldier. I'm sure you can handle your other duties."

A soldier. I was an actual soldier again. My throat closed up as fear made me feel cold and pale. I barely had the strength to keep my hands steady.

"And what would those be, sir?"

"Documenting your research, evaluating the information from other alchemists pertaining to the Philosopher's Stone, and eventually you'll likely be considered for a staff position to speak on the behalf of State Alchemists, particularly in time of war." In other words, from everything I remembered from my brief time under his command, I was taking over Grand's old job.

Holy fucking shit.

"Are we expecting a war any time soon?"

He laughed. "Not that I know of! But it's never too early to be prepared. Settling into a new job during war time is never fun."

"No, sir." I hesitated as an idea began to form. "Sir, may I make recommendations concerning the other State Alchemists?"

"That's part of your new job, Colonel, yes. You have a suggestion already?"

I nodded. "Colonel Roy Mustang, the Flame Alchemist. He got banished out East by General Hakuro, and he's been wasting away out there. He's serving no real purpose beyond administrative. His last reassesment was pitiful as a result." Not that I knew for certain, but I'd heard Mustang complain loud enough to be reasonably sure.

"I'm sure General Hakuro knew what he was doing when he transferred Colonel Mustang," Bradley said a little dismissively.

No, I needed someone I could trust there in Central with me. I had to come up with a good reason to get Bradley to let me get Mustang to where he could help me. He hadn't been there with Tucker, but he'd been there in so many other ways since, ways that I had refused to see at the time, but in a panic, I could recognize as something I could depend on.

"So do I, sir, but I have more use for him than General Grumman or Hakuro either one do."

That made Bradley raise an eyebrow and he sat back, folding his hands behind his head. "Oh? Do tell. I assume you want him transferred to Central?"

"Yes, sir. I'd like him under my command. He was a valuable resource for me." I hoped Bradley wouldn't think it was dumb, or dismiss my idea entirely. I didn't dare try to run an office full of men and women I couldn't trust. Having Mustang and his crew there would make it that much easier on me, and would free me up to do more research.

Apparently, my suggestion was enormously funny. "You want your former commanding officer under your command?"

"Yes, sir. As I said, he was a valuable research asset. And he knows how to run an office better than I do. I could use someone experienced to delegate work to."

Bradley continued to laugh hard enough I worried he'd fall out of his chair. "I'll put in for the transfer for you, Colonel Elric. I think that's a wonderful idea. He can help you settle in, I believe. In the meantime, I'd like you to meet your new adjutant." He picked up the phone. "Captain Douglas? We're ready for you." He hung up and looked up at me. "You'll find her quite agreeable. See, she has a little secret. The same secret that you do, Edward."

Before I could evaluate that statement, everything inside of me stopped as the door behind me opened and she walked in. Her hair, her eyes, her face, it was all painfully familiar to me. She could've passed for my mother, easily. Without even trying.

"You see, that transmutation you think nobody knew about? That one you performed that night in Rizenbul?" Even as Bradley kept talking, I couldn't take my eyes off this woman, this doppelganger of my mother. Although I began to pale and sweat a bit at his words. That giant 't' word hovered over me again. "It wasn't quite so unsuccessful as you or Colonel Mustang thought," he said. "All it needed was one more ingredient. But as you can see, that's been taken care of."

I turned my head to look at him, wide eyed and trembling. "She- ... you mean..? She's a ... a homunculus? A created human?"

"Your created human, Colonel Elric. Whether you accept her as your mother or not is up to you, but know she was made to be that. You made her, so what will you do with her?"

I turned back to this Captain Douglas, this woman I created and fashioned after my mother. She was Mom; she'd never be the same woman as Trisha Elric, but... she was my homunculus. The mother I built. "M-mom?"

Douglas smiled. "Hello, Edward. I see you are in better health than the last time I saw you."

I gave her a weak smile. "Winry and Grandma fixed me up."

Her smile was Mom's smile. "They always were taking such good care of you. Made my job easier over the years. Now come, we have to settle you into your new office. Your subordinates will be here soon. We can get you into uniform and set up things to your liking in the meantime."

I looked back at Bradley. "Am I in trouble?"

Please say no.

"For what?" Bradley's purposely dumb expression was bad enough I could've slugged him for it. But then he smiled, nodded his head at Douglas. "You mean for her? If I were anyone else, yes, but I'm friends, you might say, with the lady that takes care of homunculii like Captain Douglas here. I'm sure she'll be thrilled that one of her homunculii was actually accepted by her creator." That smile turned into his obnoxious 'everything's funny to me all the time' grin that he usually was sporting. "Now go on, you have lots of work to do. I'll put in for Mustang's transfer. Anyone else I should include in that?"

"His normal crew," I answered, feeling too unsteady for the full relief at his words to crash in just yet. "Lieutenants Hawkeye, Havoc, and Breda, and Sergeant Fuery. I don't know their first names, but they've been with Mustang since he was in Central last. If he trusts them to get the work done, then I do too."

"Very well, I'll include them. I believe that fully staffs your office, doesn't it?"

I nodded. "Yes, sir."

"Dismissed, Colonel. Go settle in."

Both Mom and I saluted, then we left the office, with me starting to walk on somewhere up on a cloud. I was dizzy, with what, I wasn't even certain. I had my mother back. We weren't unsuccessful, not as much as I thought. It hadn't been a complete waste. Al still needed to be rescued, but I would get to tell him when he came home that his sacrifice hadn't been for nothing. That there was a mother to come home to.

I wanted to cry.

I also wanted to meet this woman who 'took care' of the homunculii and find out how she'd found Mom and what she'd done to finish the transmutation, but that would come later. For now, I had Mom back and a new job to settle into.

The job part I wasn't looking forward to, so much.

There was one thing I wanted to do before I settled in, though. I asked Mom to go ahead and go requisition me a uniform, and I signed off on it, having to authorize something for the first time in my entire life. Then I made my way down to Hughes's office.

"Mustang's going to kill me," I said upon entering.

He blinked and stood. "Ed? You got here all right? What'd the führer want, and what do you mean, Roy's going to kill you?"

"You'd better sit down," I said, taking a seat across from him. As he warily sat back down, I started explaining. "For one, I now outrank you. I got commissioned, and as a colonel."

Hughes groaned. "Roy's going to eat his own liver."

"Not yet, he won't. Wait until you hear what's next."

That got me a stare. "Okay, Ed, start talking."

"I have Grand's old job. And I got Mustang transferred back to Central."

Hughes brightened. "Well, that's good news! Sure, he'll be jealous of your new job, but he's needed out of the East since he got sent there."

I held up a finger. "Under my command."

The happy expression on Hughes's face fell and shattered on the floor. "What?"

"You heard me. Under my command. He's in my office as my subordinate. Bradley thought it was the most hilarious idea he'd ever heard."

For a second, all Hughes seemed able to do was stare at me. Then he burst into laughter, much the way Bradley had done. "Oh my god, he's going to murder you in your sleep, Ed," he howled. "Lemme call him, I get to be first to tell him." He grabbed his phone and motioned to his help for a secure line.

I waited patiently as Hughes and Mustang went through their little routine of Hughes telling Mustang all about Elysia, although actually, it was more like trying to tell him through peals of laughter, until finally both sides signaled the line clear. "Roy, that boy of yours is something else," he said. "He's here not even a day and already he's causing hate and discontent."

"And yet you're laughing about it, Hughes," I heard Mustang's voice over the other side.

"He's been commissioned, and as a colonel, so you no longer outrank him, for one thing."

"What a disgusting thought. Go on. Something in here is funny to you, I demand to know what."

Hughes laughed harder. "Well, for one, he's got Grand's old job. And before you make noises of jealousy, so do you. He got you transferred back to Central. As his subordinate in his office."

There was silence from the other end. "Hughes? Your joke is in poor taste."

"It's no joke, Roy," Hughes said, sitting up straighter as his laughter died down. "He's right here with me, you can ask him yourself."

"Let me speak to him."

Hughes handed the phone to me. "Yes, sir?" I said into the mouthpiece.

"Edward, what the hell are you doing over there?"

"Getting you back to Central. I need help with my new office and I don't trust people here."

Mustang was quiet. "I will set you on fire, boy."

"No, you won't," I said. "I run too fast. I'll see you when you get here, sir." With that, I handed the phone back to Hughes. "I have to go see to my adjutant," I said. Hughes waved me off, taking the phone back.

I left before I heard any more of their conversation. I caught up with Mom at requisitions. She smiled at me. "They have your size, but you might have to transmute the right shoulder and left leg a bit to accommodate your automail," she said.

I shrugged. "That's fine." I'd had to custom make my clothes to fit me anyway, and I'd had to do that with the uniform I had up north, it didn't bother me to do it again.

My office was clean, but empty and devoid of life. Even the desks had been cleared out. That was the first thing we put on the list, was desks and chairs. I counted out how many we'd need and Mom put it down on the forms.

I had nowhere to stay that night, so Mom invited me to stay with her, until I could either find a house of my own, which didn't appeal to me, or a military dorm that was to my suiting. I decided I'd rather stay with her, even if it looked weird to the outside world.

She made my favorite stew and an apple cobbler to celebrate our reunion. Despite how hungry I was, I didn't eat much at first, because I couldn't. It was so much like the old times that it constricted my throat as tears threatened me. It wasn't right, not without Al there, too.

"Edward, what's wrong?" she asked as she set down her spoon and put a hand on my shoulder.

I swallowed hard, shying away from the touch. "'m sorry, it's good, it really is, Mom," I tried to assure her through a broken voice.

Mom lifted her hand slightly, but didn't seem to focus too much on my reaction to the contact. "It's Alphonse, isn't it?"

I nodded wordlessly, resting my head on one hand as I valiantly fought off the urge to cry.

Mom got up and pulled me into a hug. It took everything in me to not duck away. "You'll get him back, Edward, I know you will. The person that helped me knows a lot about the Philosopher's Stone, she'll be able to help you."

"I already know what it's made from, Mom," I told her, swallowing tightly one more time before sitting up in her embrace a bit. "I just haven't had a chance to look for the leftover research in the labs."

She kissed my forehead. "Then you can do that as soon as Colonel Mustang is here and you've got him set up doing paperwork for you. Just a few more days, sweetie."

I cringed, sighed and smiled at her. "I see you still remember my favorites."

She ruffled my hair. "How could I forget? You used to beg me for that stew and cobbler every night."

"Not every night," I protested lamely, starting to attack my food with the fury of a teenage boy with a psychotically high metabolism.

She laughed. "Close enough, Edward, close enough."

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