At the Gates

Four months went by, seeming to drag. For the first time since moving to Central, Winly didn't visit like she always did. Ed didn't quite know what to make of it, especially when the letters became short and to the point. She was preoccupied with something, although Ed couldn't imagine what it was. He resolved that if this went on for more than a year, he'd write her and ask if she had a boyfriend yet. It was only fair, he thought, resolving not to be resentful. No one owed him anything—least of all Winly, who had gifted him with this automail (which was fantastically light—he didn't know how he'd lived with that much weight in the past).

Ed wondered sometimes, as he was falling into exhausted, dreamless sleep at the end of the night, what Mustang was up to in his newly gained position ... but the thoughts faded before they could coalesce. More often he wondered about Al. Al, who had turned 21 two months ago (and 16 physically). He could almost imagine what he looked like, could imagine forming his body back into the shape it was meant for, reconstructing it from beyond the Gate—

And then he would wake up to banging on the bars.

Why am I thinking about this stuff so much? Ed wondered as he stared at the tiled wall of the showers. He knew why he was thinking about Al—he was always thinking about Al. But the book, and the news clipping ... it was some of the first direct connections to the outside world he'd had literally in years.

Oddly, it was harder now, living the daily routine, with this taste of something outside his own confined life.

"Is there a way to get a newspaper?" Ed asked Matheson during his rotation.

"Shut up, Elric," Matheson answered irritably. "I shouldn't have to listen to your voice—it's bad enough looking at you folk."

Ed said an ugly word, but he didn't think he deserved the extra hour of labor it got him.

He reasoned that eventually the urge to know more about what was going on would go away. He tried to concentrate on writing his second book instead.

On August 30th, Ed's world was turned upside-down.

He was eating breakfast when he heard his name. "Edward Elric!"

No one called him by his full name any more, unless they were commanding his attention. It was instinct that brought Ed snapping to his feet, lifting his head to see who was talking.

Two guards were at the end of the mess hall. "Front and center, Elric," called one of them, and Ed came forward obediently, bewildered. What in hell was going ...

They cuffed him immediately, snapping him into his specially-made bonds wordlessly. "What's going on?" Ed asked, but neither answered. "Look, if you're gonna take me out back and shoot me, at least tell me first." Nothing. "... I haven't done anything wrong lately. I didn't start that fight with Hopkins."

They still didn't reply; Ed fell silent. He didn't think he'd ever seen these guys before, come to think of it. He wondered if he was about to be executed; it wouldn't be a complete surprise, although he would have more expected it under the old regime, not under Mustang's watch. He couldn't help but dread the thought, his throat working. What made him want to cling to life so badly anyway? All he had to look forward to was fifty more years of digging holes and chipping rocks and writing books for a little brother he'd never ever see.

The guard opened a door and Ed was ushered inside to a sight that left him utterly speechless.

Three officers wearing full police uniforms were seated at a table across the room, and about ten chairs were set up around the room. Foley was there, the warden was there, Mason was there—oh, there was Crowley, the old sneak ... and Ed gaped.

Furher Roy Mustang was seated in one of the uncomfortable metal chairs, and at his side was Hawkeye—a Brigadier General, Ed noted from the stripes at her shoulders. Mustang didn't look at him—didn't move at all as Ed was pushed towards the front, to the chair in front of the three officers. His hair had gone gray at the temples; the patch still covered his eye. Hawkeye didn't look at him either, her eyes turned forward professionally.

Ed stopped staring when he was jostled past his old commanding officer and shoved down into the chair in front of the three police officers.

"The matter of the parole of Edward Elric is now opened," announced the officer sitting between the others—a woman, with the name 'SIKES' printed on her pin.

Ed's eyes widened, and he twisted in his seat to look at Mustang, but the guard on his left grabbed his shoulder and pulled him back down against the chair facing forward. "Yes, Mr. Elric," said Sikes, her mouth twitching, "You are correct—you have the Fuhrer to thank for this hearing." She raised her voice. "In opening, I would like to remind those present of Edward Elric's crimes, as he was convicted by a court of his peers: performing human alchemy. The murder of his younger brother, Alphonse Elric, at the age of eleven by said human alchemy. And most heinous of all, the murder of several thousand good Amestrian soldiers in yet another attempt at human alchemy, this time to restore his brother." She narrowed her eyes. "For these crimes he has been sentenced to a lifetime in a federal correctional facility, forbidden from performing alchemy. This hearing has been called not by the parole board, but by the Fuhrer himself." At these words she stood and turned towards Mustang.

Everyone else in the room followed suit. Edward was pulled up and turned towards Mustang. The police officers, guardsmen, and Hawkeye all saluted; Mustang remained seated, his face impassive. Ed was pressed into a bow, before he was pushed back down into his seat; he took the manhandling without a fight, still shocked into silence. He came through. He came through, he kept thinking. I can't fucking believe he kept his promise!

Sikes spoke again. "We are not considering the matter of Mr. Elric's innocence; his conviction still stands. Rather, you must convince these two fine gentleman and myself that Mr. Elric has served his due time and will integrate successfully with society." She rested back in her chair. "Mr. Bruson?"

Ed craned his neck to see who had been called forward, and found an overweight man rising out of his chair and clearing his throat self-importantly. "Officer Sikes, Officers Brunell and Hallidae, thank you for inviting me to represent this matter."

Ed lowered his head and sneered. He remembered this man—-he was the prosecutor at the trial. Fuck.

"Go on, Mr. Bruson."

"As you know, I was the prosecutor six years ago during Mr. Elric's trial. I have here—pardon me—-" there was rustling paper. "A list of the fights, violations, and other scrapes that Mr. Elric has gotten into while in prison—as you can see, it's quite a collection. I'll just highlight the main points. Early in his incarceration, Mr. Elric performed alchemy, and only severe punishment convinced him it wasn't an offense worth repeating; he put one of his fellow inmates in a coma at this time, although he luckily recovered. Caught outside of his cell during after-hours—and we may never know how he managed that—perhaps by that self-same alchemy? A knife fight which put Mr. Elric's opponent in the infirmary. He visciously beat an inmate into impotency—"

Ed couldn't keep quiet any more at that. "That fucker deserved worse," he snarled, clenching his fists.

"Mr. Elric," said Sikes severely. "Hold your peace." She looked back up. "Go on, Mr. Bruson."

Mr. Bruson looked a little surprised at Ed's outburst, but he covered well. "Ah, well ... he's been in a ridiculous number of scrapes, fights, incidents of insubordination ..."

Ed grit his teeth and held his peace with almost visible effort. Insubordination!? The worst he'd ever done to a guard was swear at them! Luckily, Bruson was winding down. "You have the complete file, I believe," he said with a shrug, indicating the papers in front of the parole board. "I believe it speaks for itself: Mr. Elric is hardly fit for release when he cannot conduct himself decently in a correctional facility." He sat down pompously.

"Thank you, Mr. Bruson. I believe Officer Mason had some words?"

Ed stiffened a little at that. Oh fuck, I don't even want to hear this. But hear it he would, as there was the creaking of a metal chair; Ed couldn't see him—Mason was too far behind him. "He killed my boy," Mason said in a low voice, and Ed cringed. I'm sorry for him. Shouldn't have happened. "He killed my son, and—this is ridiculous, the idea that he should be on parole! He should be dead!"

There was a momentary silence, and Ed grimaced under it. Sikes was the first to speak. "Mr. Mason, we're sorry for your loss. What happened at Lior is doubtless a great crime and tragedy, but here we are. Is it your position that Mr. Elric's crimes put him far beyond eligibility for parole?"

"Yes, Ma'am, that's exactly right." Mason's voice was shaking—Ed wasn't sure if it was with rage or emotion. "He's a murderer, and he's not even had the decency to confess or apologize. He's ..." Mason's voice trailed off. "He should have been executed." The chair creaked again as Mason sat down.

"And thank you, Mr. Mason," Sikes said, noting something on the paper before her. She looked up and over the small gathering. "This is rather unusual at a parole hearing; we have quite a few people who have input on behalf of Mr. Elric. Mr. Crowley, if you will, please?"

Ed could see Crowley out of the corner of his eye. He was as thin as ever, he noted, and balding. He smoothed down his shirt and stood up, also holding a sheaf of papers. "Officer Sikes, esteemed members of the parole board, I hardly need to say a word here. These petitions, signed by hundreds of Risenbul residents and thousands of Central City residents, are for the parole of Edward Elric, whom they all trust as a member of society. We have letters vouching for Mr. Elric's good character—a particularly resounding response from Youswell, which is prospering thanks to the efforts of Mr. Elric. Surely his reputation as 'the Alchemist who works for the People' was not entirely undeserved." He came up to the board and put down the folder, which was nearly overflowing.

Ed stared at the folder, speechless. He glanced up at Crowley, but the man wouldn't look at him. Shit, he really is a weasel. Ed dropped his head and pressed his lips tight to stifle a bark of laughter. The man did a complete 180 just because Mustang's his boss! But ... the petitions ... it couldn't be ... Damn, Winly ...

"I think it's clear that Mr. Elric can—and has—functioned in a meaningful matter in regular society. Thank you." Crowley sat back down.

"Thank you, Mr. Crowley ... Warden?" Sikes looked up.

Ed lifted his head again. The warden was testifying?

"Yes, officers, thank you." There was a short pause. "I have very little to offer to this parole hearing, but I believe that it is a matter of the greatest importance. I cannot speak for whether or not Mr. Elric is guilty of the crimes he was convicted for, but I have observed this—and Officer Foley will vouch for me on this matter. Edward Elric, for all the fights he has been in and all the reports filed against him, has ... how to put this? He has utterly failed to kill us all.

"How can I impress upon you how important this is? Mr. Elric killed thousands of soldiers without remorse, but we allowed him to keep his automail arm, even knowing he can do alchemy without an array! At any time, he could have decided to utterly decimate the prison population, and yet, here we stand today. I myself can find no explanation for this—except, perhaps, that Mr. Elric is reformed. Given the extent of his abilities, both reported and observed, I cannot imagine what could possibly be keeping him in prison at all, if not for a willingness to abide by law and serve his debt to society.

"Thank you."

The warden testified on my behalf!?

"Thank you, sir," Sikes said after a moment of silence—-obviously, this argument had not occured to them either. "Mr. Elric, do you have anything to add?"

Ed startled, and realized he was supposed to speak on his own behalf. What should I say? Should I say anything? No—he licked his lips and raised his head, looking Sikes in the eye. "No," he said evenly. What the hell would he say, anyway? He couldn't give one good reason for his own parole. "I don't."

"I do."

Ed twisted around to look at the speaker—everyone did. It was the Fuhrer, who had come to his feet. His face was solemn. Even Sikes didn't dare speak.

"Madam and sirs of the parole board—I would like this to be clear." Mustang's voice still carried that slight, smug note that Ed had grown so used to. Shit, shit, this is too weird! "I trust Mr. Elric completely. The matter of his conviction is over and done—I have no intention of turning over the people's verdict—but I will vouch for Mr. Elric's good behavior upon his imminent release from Third Central Prison, and will gladly take responsibility for any acts that would contradict my assessment of Mr. Elric as someone who is ... very unlikely to commit homocide." A smirk twitched at the corner of his lip—a familiar look that put Edward firmly back in Mustang's office, young and furious.

"My Fuhrer," said Sikes, coming to her feet and saluting, "with all due respect, it is not yet at all certain that Mr. Elric will be paroled."

The look Mustang gave her was one of evaluation—Ed remembered it well. "Madam," he said gently, "I am at the head of the military, and if I am not mistaken, you and your fellow officers do, in fact, answer to me."

Ed whipped his head around to look at Sikes again, and her face went pale before Ed's eyes. He craned his neck to look at Mustang again.

"Havoc should have brought the car around by now. Brigadier General?"

"Sir." Hawkeye shot to her feet and saluted.

"Officer Sikes, we will be in touch," Mustang said, and made a motion with his hand. Hawkeye responded to it as if it were an order, leading the way out of the room, which of course brought everyone else to their feet, and Ed was pressed back into a bow, which he didn't fight.

Mustang still had that magical effect, though. The room was silent as if a storm had just blown through for a long moment, before Sikes ordered everyone to be seated again.

"Well, then," she said slowly, and looking pained. "As the Fuhrer himself has in fact vouched for Mr. Elric, there is little I can do to keep him imprisoned for the remainder of his term. Officers?" The two men on either side of her nodded; the one on the left shrugged as well.

Sikes looked straight at Edward. "Mr. Edward Elric: congratulations. Parole is granted."

Ed was surprised to realize he was blinking back tears.