chapter 9.

It had taken him the better part of a minute to work the clasp on the suitcase open, finally settling for wedging his thumb beneath the faded brass to lever it upward. And maybe it had been awkward, Ed conceded as he began to pry at the one opposite. And probably, it'd looked pretty fucking strange. But the point was, he'd done it—and when the second gave under the pressure with a soft 'pop', the boy grinned manically to himself and pushed the lid of the case open to reveal its contents.

It was, Edward noted with a snort, disgustingly neat. But then, that shouldn't have surprised him—even when they'd been searching for the Stone and Al hadn't needed to bring anything along, it had been a habit of his to be sure that the smaller boy kept his possessions organized. Ed had lost count of the number of times he's been scolded—"If you don't fold your clothes, brother, they won't fit when you try to put them back"—and the thought that Alphonse would be forced to do it again when he returned was enough to turn the grin into something positively wicked.

For now, though, he concerned himself with what he'd set out to do—namely, finding something to entertain himself until his brother did come back. And hopefully, keeping his mind from the nagging worry that hovered near the back of his thoughts, had been insisting ever since his brother left that something would go wrong. Because if afternoon came and went and Alphonse still hadn't returned—he wasn't sure what he would do.

And so he pushed the thoughts from him again, instead turning a considering golden gaze over the spines of the books nestled within the battered old case. A thumb drifted briefly along one, pried it up with another soon to follow and worked them awkwardly out to flip through the first few pages. He'd read them both, he realized with a twinge of disappointment—the same problem that he'd encountered with the second of the books that Alphonse had left on the bedside table.

And so he reached for another volume instead, worked it carefully free—paused as a sheaf of papers fluttered to land atop the neatly folded clothes.

The words in the center of the front page were typed but fading, and Ed had to lean in so that he could read them.

He was reaching for the report with a shaking arm as soon as realization struck, knowing what he would see but unable to stop himself. The boy knew, too, the memories that lay waiting just below the surface, bits and pieces of nightmare recollections in between the fog of drugs—and as he scrabbled at the first page with what remained of his hand, he found that he was helpless to hold them back.

"Come now." The slender bar of metal connected with his back again, drove the air from his lungs as he attempted to draw in the breath for a scream. He choked instead, a guttural sound, wet and pained. "All you have to say is 'please'."

"Fuck you," the boy hissed, golden eyes narrowed to tiny slits of hate—and then the bar fell again, left a stripe of glistening red in its wake, and Ed screamed hoarsely.

"Really," the man continued, tone reasonable. "Think about it. You don't want me to hurt you—" The rod whistled through the air, struck flesh again. "-and I want to be able to tell the Fuhrer that you begged." Another blow, and the blood was enough to begin running down the outsides of the boy's bare thighs. "Equivalent trade, isn't it?"

The man paused, waiting for an answer—and when none came, he brought the thin strip of metal down once more. "You could make this much easier on the both of us," he offered calmly. "After all, it's not like I enjoy beating you senseless."

Biting down the sound of pain that struggled to fight its way clear of his throat, Ed glared helplessly. "Could've fooled me," he hissed through clenched teeth—made as though to say more, but was interrupted as the next strike turned the word into a cry halfway.

"Oh?" And for the first time, the man circled around to the front of the bound figure, fixing him with a gaze that, while usually impartial, had grown distinctly annoyed. "Every day, I give up two hours so that I can come and hurt you. Two hours that I could otherwise be spending on my research."

This time, the metal came into contact with skin that was already bleeding, and Ed jerked in response, trying to twist out of the way. It was useless, he knew—his single hand was bound with a rope suspended from the support beam in the mine's ceiling, fingers pressed together in a fist and wrapped tight with fabric so that, even if he had something to write with, he wouldn't be able to hold it to draw an array. And after the first time he'd attempted to scratch a circle in the dirt floor with his heel, his captor has even taken to lifting him a bit higher than necessary, leaving his single leg shaking and exhausted with the effort of balancing his full weight on the edge of his toes.

But with the burning rush of hurt along the flat of his back, instinct insisted that he struggle whether it was fruitless or not—and as the metal broke flesh once again, he did as best he was able.

"Let's make a deal," the man offered, and Ed peered at him balefully from a single golden eye. The other had swollen shut almost an hour ago.

"Don't wan a deal," the boy mumbled, words indistinct as he attempted to form them around the pain of the gash that adorned his lower lip.

But the man was ignoring him, moving to crouch so that they were at eye-level; with his single wrist and ankle both fastened to the wall behind him, the position that Ed was kneeling in was awkward, shoulder and leg just beginning to cramp in protest.

Cool fingers sought the boy's chin, raised it so that golden eyes had nowhere to look but into unremarkable hazel.

"No, no—hear me out." One finger reached to wipe carefully at the stream of blood working its way down his chin. "I will leave you alone for the rest of today, and for all of tomorrow. I will tie you so that you can lie down to sleep." The thumb found its way to his forehead, stemmed the flow that trickled slowly from a shallow cut. "I will bring you half a loaf of bread on each day." There was a pause, expectant. "All you have to do is say 'please'."

For the first several seconds, Edward couldn't speak for the startling spike of want that rose up in response to the words. If the pain stopped, even for just two days—if he could have food to stop the endless, desperate ache that had taken up residence in his stomach—

But then he was scowling, one good eye narrowed. "Wha's your fuckin fetish with that word?"

"Well, if you'd like to be more thorough about it, you can." Abruptly, the hand left his face. "I just thought it would be easier to persuade you if I required a bit less."

"'m not gonna say it," the boy answered. "So why not jus lie already?" The single golden eye was watchful, intent. "Tell em I did whatever you wan—more time for research if you just lemme lone, right?"

And for just a split second, the man seemed to consider it. Then he stood again, with a disappointed sigh. "I won't say it's not tempting," he admitted. "But it's about academic integrity, you understand. If my credibility is ruined, who will ever trust my work?"

Disbelief registered in the depths of the boy's eye; it grew wide with the revelation, naked horror creeping in around the edges. "No one," he managed, fervent. "Cause you're a fuckin psychopath."

The man greeted the accusation with a calm but weary smile. "In that case." Long fingers searched amid a small set of equipment laid out on one of the lab tables, selected a slender knife. "Let's start again, shall we?"

"Please," Edward rasped as his torturer entered the room.

The man paused mid-step, expression plainly proclaiming the victory a pleasant surprise. "There, now. That wasn't so hard, was it?" And then he was moving forward again, smiling mildly in satisfaction.

Ed watched with a warring mix of shame and anticipation as he approached the object that had finally made it all too much: a smallish ceramic bowl filled with oatmeal, cruelly close and yet, bound as he was, out of reach. The man had lifted a spoonful to his lips the previous day, and he'd gulped it down, desperate—thick and sweet and still a little bit warm, the best thing he'd tasted in a long, long time. But when the familiar prompt had come, he'd managed to hiss an obscenity, had somehow dredged up the willpower to tell the man exactly where he could stick his fucking oatmeal.

And so the bowl had found a spot on the floor in front of him, plainly visible, and Ed had fought against the smell of it for half the night, barely able to think beyond the clawing ache where his stomach had once been.

Edward was shaking by the time the man reached to take hold of the bowl, all his hours of debate and guilt and justification washed away with the force of need. By the time it was lifted to his lips, he didn't care whether Mustang would be stupid enough to cave in over one more added line, couldn't worry about whether his brother would read that he'd begged.

For the moment, there was food—and he made it be enough.

"I thought for sure that it would work," the man confided. There was disappointment in the tone, and in his eyes. He lifted the hammer again, let it fall; ignored the whimper of pain that it earned him. "I suppose the Fuhrer is a stubborn man, though."

Ed tried to breathe through the shooting agony lancing up his arm, closed his eyes against it. "You could just—give up. Let me go." His voice sounded distant to his own ears, and a little shaky.

"Don't be absurd." The hammer came down again, and the boy gave a pathetic half-cry, squirmed to get away. "We'll just have to get more creative." Careful fingers pulled away from the wounded area and sought out a new nail, set it firmly against the fleshy part of his thumb. The hammer rose again, hesitated. "Do remember to stay still, now. If you jerk like that, I can't guarantee that there won't be permanent damage."

Metal met the blunted end of pointed iron, and new blood ran; despite the warning, he moaned hoarsely and tugged at his arm, pain making him desperate. Again the hammer fell, and again—and when at last a new nail had settled itself into the block of wood laid out behind Ed's splayed hand, the man stopped to speak again.

"Unless," he prompted hopefully, "You know of someone who might be more open to negotiations. Family, perhaps. Or close friends. Anyone who could help persuade the Fuhrer to our cause."

The images rose unbidden in response: Winry's face, intent with her work, long hair pulled back in a tie and heedless of the machine oil that smeared her cheek and clothing. A brief, tense smile, too wrapped up in his arm to manage more, and words that had revealed concern for the pain she was causing: "Hang on—almost done, okay?"

Al, newly restored, bronze eyes soft with wonder as they'd lain together that first night, smiling even as he fought tears. A careful, searching hand, wanting to touch his face for the first time in far too long. Whispered words: "Thank you, brother."

The two of them standing on the train platform in Central, the blue of the sky impossibly bright behind them, smiling and waving him off.

When the sound bubbled up from somewhere in the center of his chest, unsteady and a little bit hysterical, Edward wasn't sure whether he was laughing or crying.

"That," the man told him, "Was a very bad idea."

Ed flinched as the next blow fell, helpless to duck out of the way; he was lying bound and face up on the metal of a now-empty lab table, its previous contents shattered on the floor beneath them. And the expression in the man's eyes was angry.

"If you are going to try to use your automail to get away," he hissed, and brought the heavy steel arm to bear once more, driving the breath from Ed as the blow connected with his stomach, "That is fine."

"If you feel the need to struggle, that is fine." The metal of his own artificial fingers landed hard against his face, filled his mouth with blood.

"If you cut me in the attempt, that is fine." Ed closed his eyes, waited for the pain to follow—and when none came, he opened them again by degrees, cautious.

The man was leaning in close over him, those placid hazel eyes full of contained fury; blood still ran from the gash in his forehead to form a trail past his nose and drip from the tip of his chin.

"But if you ruin part of my research in the process," the man ground out, each word distinct, "That is not."

Golden eyes shaded with anticipatory terror, the boy could only watch as he knelt and began gathering shattered pieces of glass—the remnants of beakers destroyed in the alchemical battle that his frantic attempt at escape had prompted.

He'd been too weakened from months of abuse to even approach his usual fighting prowess, and as the man straightened and lay the glass out on the table beside him, Ed's mind kept furiously insisting that if only he'd gotten this chance sooner, it could have been different.

And then careful fingers were selecting a piece of the destroyed lab equipment, were working the first shard into his arm port—and quite suddenly, thought fled in the face of mindless, crushing agony. The boy's body jerked against its bonds, a shriek that was barely human torn from his throat.

But patient hands were there to hold him down, and soon a second segment of the shattered beaker had joined the first. A third followed, and more after, inserted one after the next by steady fingers slicked with blood.

It wasn't until the man lifted the automail again that terror became strong enough to override pain.

"Please," the boy gasped, breath coming in sobs. "Please—please, don't—" But the man wasn't listening—was lining the limb up with Ed's arm port, and a desperate whine escaped him.

"I'm sorry," Ed cried, voice shaking with the intensity of the pain. "I'm sorry—Please—oh God, oh please—"

But if a god that Edward had never truly believed in was listening, it didn't prevent the metallic click as the automail slid into place, didn't do anything to stop the raw, unfathomable hurt that crashed over his body in waves. The world was one place, and one place only: the gaping, screaming mass of nerves where his arm had been.

But only until the first sliver of glass was pressed into the socket on his leg.

The door clicked quietly open, but Edward didn't hear it.

He didn't hear anything until the familiar voice of his brother penetrated the screaming that echoed in his mind—wasn't aware of the room around him until golden eyes, wide and stunned, turned to stare up at the door.

His brother was there—was kneeling and setting down books and a flashlight, and for a moment, Ed couldn't recall why he'd come or where he'd been or anything but a tiny voice that whispered insidiously that this was all wrong. This was a dream, it told him quietly, as it had every time he'd struggled awake from nightmares to find himself in Alphonse's arms. This was too good; it couldn't be real.

"Al?" he asked, softly, and the voice didn't sound like his own.

Dazedly, Ed let his eyes fall to the papers that lay in the open suitcase before him. A heartbeat more and he lifted them again, was greeted with a startled bronze gaze.

"Al," he began again, and made as though to continue—but his throat was thick, and the rest of the words didn't seem willing to leave it.

The realization had barely occurred before, abruptly, speech didn't seem to matter anymore—because his brother had crossed the room, was there beside him, was holding him. And for just that one moment, Ed forgot about everything but those gentle, loving arms.