He'd realized his mistake as soon as he'd made it, just one second too late to stop it from happening. And after that, it was only a matter of time.
He should never have reacted to the pain of automail connection, he knew; not where that fuckhole Greeson could see it. When the arm finally came back to it he'd braced himself like he always did, grunted and ground and gritted his teeth and squirmed against the fiery bolts of electricity shooting through his shoulder. Then opened his eyes, to look at his hand as he flexed it, testing for function... just in time to catch the expression on the guard's face.
Startled. Speculative. Gleeful. Edward's heart had sunk right into his stomach.
A yell had come from the corridor outside right then, and they'd taken him away without another word. Back into the jungle, where that selfsame arm and leg were all the defense he had against the wild beasts inhabiting it... but nothing had happened. Nothing had come of it, and for a long time Edward hoped that nothing would.
He should have known better than to hope.
And now it was just a question of breathing. In and out, in as deep as he could, out as slowly as his heaving lungs would manage. Breathing. Fuck, he did it every day of his life, why was it so hard all of a sudden?
Winry had taught him breathing techniques, way back when, pain control techniques for when the drugs weren't working or couldn't be given for some reason or another. He tried to remember them now, but they weren't up to this. Nothing was.
"Well, Elric?" a smug voice startled him out of his reverie, and he arched his back, startled into a fast inhale. He recognized the voice of Brockman, a night shift man who had it in for him. It was nothing personal, as far as he could tell; just a generalized hatred of who he was, and what he represented "D'you want it back? Or not? It's up to you."
"Yes," he hissed, bloody lips peeling back from his teeth. Brockman was a nasty piece of work, full of the petty sadism that infected so many of the prison guards, but he never would have had the guts for something like this if not for the others pushing things forward, egging each other on. "Give it... back... you... bastards..."
"That's insubordination, Elric," another voice said from the other side of him, and he forced his eyes open to glare at Greeson, circling around the chair. "Using abusive language against a guard is worth a demerit, you know. Maybe you don't really want this automail back."
"No!" he gritted out, arching up in the chair. His left wrist was still handcuffed to the metal arm of the chair, right ankle bound to the chair leg, and the other limbs didn't need any bindings at all. His shoulder and thigh ached and burned, steady throbs of fire arcing inwards from the empty port, but he knew this was just a preview of how bad it was going to hurt in a minute. Fuck Greeson, goddamn sadist, he loved these cat and mouse games. "Give it back... please... sir."
Asking for his own torture, practically begging for it; this was so fucked up. Edward knew it, but he was helpless to see any way out. This made the sixth... seventh? No, that was a while ago... time that they had gone round this cycle. He could make this stop at any time, he knew. They'd as much as told him so. All he had to do was say no, and they'd stop, and let him go. Uncuff him from the chair, and turn him loose back to the main bloc.
Of course, they'd put him back without his automail. Maimed and crippled, stripped of his only defense; before the night was out he'd be mugged, raped, and probably beaten to death. But he'd be free of this. All he had to do was say no.
"Yes," he grated, through a throat dry as the desert.
"Well, you heard the man," a third voice from behind him said. Mason stepped into his line of vision, carrying something long and gleamingly silver. Edward's heart beat faster, both in eagerness and fear... anticipation of pain. "Let's put it back."
Mason stepped forward, and with an easy, practiced motion, snapped it into place against the port and pushed.
Agony exploded Edward Elric's world, red-white-hot bloom of fire rolling out from his shoulder and over his neck, down his belly, up his neck, into his other arm. The arm seared back into life, every artificial nerve down the automail blazing back into his consciousness once again. His muscles jerked involuntarily, spasmed, and breathing was completely out of the question as it felt like his insides were crushed into far too small a space. Holy mother of god, it was getting worse every time.
At first he'd had to bite back the screams, swallow them until he choked to keep the betraying sounds silent; now it seemed that was no longer an issue. He doubled over, retching helplessly through a throat too tight to bring up more than a trickle of bile.
It was a long, long moment before his body unlocked enough to let him breathe, and when he did, every breath poured molten lead down his throat and into his lungs. Breathe. Breathe. In and out, just breathe. He could not, no matter, what, he could not let the guards see how damn fucking much it hurt. He could not show pain, even when pain encompassed his universe. He could not show weakness, not even when it shook every muscle of his body.
That was how he'd gotten into this mess in the first place, by letting them see this weakness, by letting them know how easy it was to hurt him. He could see it in their faces, hear it in their voices; the malice, the pleasure at discovering some way of hurting him that was controlled by no regulations; stumbling into a method of torture that left no marks. Pain would bring no compassion from them, weakness would bring no relief. Not in front of these men, these sadistic monsters. They wanted him to hurt. They wanted to make him break down.
Slowly, he was able to straighten up again, to throw his head back and unclench his jaw. Thank god he had enough instinctive self-control not to bite down on his tongue, these fuckers sure as hell weren't giving him anything to bite down on. They had before, during other "correctional" sessions; a gag, or a bit of rough leather stuffed in his mouth. That they hadn't given him anything now made him wonder if the guards had no idea what they'd really tipped onto here.
"Bast..." he gasped, still too breathless to form a coherent thought. His automail arm was twitching involuntarily, alarmingly so, and he bent his will to controlling it, forcing it to rise and clench into a steady fist. There was nothing he could do about it, except endure. He was getting better at enduring things, Sooner or later they'd get bored, or someone would come in, or they'd run into some time limit and have to stop. It was just a matter of lasting until then.
He'd lost track of anything going on outside of his skin, and so a startled cry wrenched from his throat when hands grabbed him from behind, seizing his shoulder and digging at the port; and then the numbness flashed, and faded, and the arm was gone. Again. Just like that. Edward could have screamed, or cried in frustration. "What?!"
"Oops," Greeson's voice chuckled, full of oil and malice. "Sorry, Elric, I thought you were getting ready to attack us with that thing. I had to take it off to defend myself, don't you see." He tossed the arm, casually, from one hand to another, then turned to place it on the table, next to the leg. Edward stared at them, the silvery reflections burning into his eyes.
"Elric knows better than to attack us," Mason sneered, crossing in front of his vision. "At least, if he wants his limbs back at all. You do, don't you, punk? You want them back?
Again. Another round, an endless cycle. Ed forced himself to swallow, tasted salt and iron and bitter rancor. When would this stop? There were no rules here, not protecting him, or reigning them in. That frightened him, that maybe they wouldn't know when to stop, that even he had no idea what would happen if they wouldn't.
Never before, not even the during surgery and adjustments, had the automail been disconnected and reconnected in so short a time; he didn't know what it might do to the machines, the wires, or to him. He tried not to think about the things that could possibly go wrong; burnt wires, blown fuses, freezing the automail useless and rendering him helpless, truly helpless. Or else something failing on the flesh side; nerves failing, the distant specter of rejection lurking in the background. They could cripple him for life, just by accident, and he didn't think they even knew it.
But there was nothing he could do about that, nothing he could say that wouldn't sound like begging, and begging only ever made things worse. Begging was what whiners did, weaklings, and weaklings didn't survive long in Third Central.
So he took the deepest breath he could, coughed some suffocating blockage out of his lungs, and came up with the snarky comment they were waiting on. "I hope you klutzes have got a mechanic standing by, for when you break something," he croaked, biting back all of the harsher words from the sentence, so as to give them no more excuses. "You lot don't know the first thing about automail, do you? Jesus." Because if they knew anything at all about automail, if they had any idea how bad this really hurt...
"What's the matter, Elric, can't take the heat?" Brockman saw right through the line, lame as it was, to the hint of warning and pleading that he'd tried to conceal at its center. Dammit, dammit! Damn these people, damn this place! "Gotta have your mechanic holding your hand all the time? Awww, poor little baby, maybe you'd like a blankie and a bottle to go with it, and for your mommy to tuck you in after? What a worthless, filthy asswipe!"
Ed glared at the man, fuming, but didn't respond. Where did Third Central hire off of, a playground? How juvenile could you get?
"Suck it up, Elric," Mason told him, and the stigma of obsessive hatred mixed with contempt on his face. "Fuck, I don't believe this. Can't take a little sting? You aren't even really being hurt!"
The breath left him, and his sight deserted him, filled up with rage and blood. Fury and pain surged in his blood, burst like an explosion in his eyes and mouth and sinuses; hot as burn of reconnection that was taking longer and longer to fade every time, sharp as the agony that was supposed to spike and pass off after the first few seconds wasn't passing off any more. Sting, sting, he would show them pain! He would rip off their motherfucking limbs and feed them to a fucking wood chipper, he would screw on the fucking automail himself with Winry's best drill and he would teach them the meaning of the motherfucking word pain—
It was as well that his wits deserted him, that nothing more came out of his mouth than an inarticulate hiss; as it was, Brockman stepped uneasily backwards, farther out of reach. If they said something, it was lost to the roaring in his ears, beating in time with the flares of agony beating in from his shoulder and his leg.
"Give me that!" he heard Mason snap, and silver white arced through his blurry vision. Something hard and sharp grated at his shoulder, metal grinding against his bones and slowly shredding his muscle and flesh into rags. A metal file against open wounds, raw, shuddering promise of more to come. He arched against it, jaw clamped shut, twisting away as far as the cuffs on the chair would allow. Hard hands slammed him back down, and his mouth spat out the ugliest word he knew without waiting for approval from his brain.
He saw stars; and it took him a dazed moment to realize he'd been hit, struck in the back of his head; he could hardly feel it over the roaring of his pulse. The same hand shoved his head forward and down, cramping his neck and filling his watering eyes with a view of the floor. "Shut the hell up, Elric! You got nothing to complain about. You want these back, huh? Do you? Well, do you want this or not?"
Who was shouting at him? He couldn't even tell the voices apart now, couldn't distinguish the punishing grips. There was a moment of stillness, a strange plateau of calm. Breathing was, definitely, out of the question. Fighting back, as much as his screaming nerves demanded it, was futile—worse than useless—less than worthless. Weaker than an insect, lower than dirt. He crawled.
All he had to do was say no...
"Yes," he whispered, and the word seemed very loud in the room.
"Just remember, Elric, that you asked for this."
A grinding, metal noise, and then the universe lit up completely into red darkness. He thought this time he he heard a scream—or maybe that was the automail, because nothing else could make a noise that loud and that inhuman—but what happened after that he never knew.