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the quagga

Respite


The endless cacophony of exploding shells, firing rifles, barking dogs, men coughing, and rain pattering against the ground's surface kept the night from being silent. Ed listened and shuddered, huddling down in his blanket and pretending to hear nothing. If there were no sounds, there was no war. It was an alluring idea—no war, no blood staining his automail, and no death in the darkness around him.

He was surrounded by the base camp—a few miles behind the trenches, it was a haven compared to the horrors on the frontlines. Running water, electricity, and beds were still nearly thirty miles to the South, in the nearest small town—but there were warm meals here, and the chances of being shot at were slim. Ed knew he should have felt relief, but he couldn't—he didn't want to be here or anywhere on the battlefield.

He didn't want to face Roy Mustang. He had avoided the man successfully so far, but then, they did share a tent with one another. Sure enough, shortly after midnight Mustang arrived, unbuttoning his uniform jacket and tiredly throwing his bedroll down on the ground. Mustang, as an officer, had an extra blanket—it was one of the perks. But that didn't account for the other three blankets, which Mustang tossed down in earnest, before plopping to a sitting position and opening up his canteen. Ed watched from underneath his own blanket with narrowed eyes.

The Colonel would notice him soon, and then the accusation would come.

You were being childish, Fullmetal. When are you ever going to grow up?

You were being selfish, too. How many soldiers do you think lost their lives today, Fullmetal?

And then, there was the most vexing of all—How dare you strike a superior officer, Fullmetal?

Finally, Mustang looked in his direction, a blank expression on his face—and instead of anger, or discomfort, or even disapproval, he gave Ed a wan, tired, terribly fond smile before turning back to study his canteen. Ed buried his face in the pillow.

Not this. ANYTHING but this. He should be hitting me, or screaming at me, or scolding, or ignoring me... He can't be like this...

Even worse than the Colonel's periods of apathy were the times when all he had to offer was that horrible, fond look, the one that made Ed feel like shit. The feeling was even more intense, now—there were bruises up and down Mustang's side from flailing automail, and a bandage around his throat where a transmuted blade had nearly ended his life. Ed lingered on the pillow, shoving his face into the airy cotton and wishing he could disappear into it. After a few moments passed, he forced himself to raise his head again.

Mustang took a few more drinks, before setting his canteen down—some of it sloshed over the side, and Ed was surprised that it was only water and not some kind of alcohol—and looked towards Ed. His eyes were still oddly bright in the gloom of the night.

"You should get something to eat, Fullmetal."

Ed glared.

Mustang paused, and grimaced slightly.

Here it comes. He's going to scream at me.

Instead, the man reached forth, taking Ed's automail wrist and dragging the limb out from under the blankets. Ed nearly jerked away, before he saw what the Colonel was doing—pulling out a large handkerchief, he wetted it slightly with the water from his canteen and began wiping the blood off Ed's automail.

"What the fuck are you doing?"

"Isn't it obvious? If you're not even going to take care of yourself, I have to do it for you."

It was amazing, how terrible Roy Mustang always managed to make him feel. Ed buried his face in the pillow again, scowling and trying to ignore the other's presence, but it was impossible. After a while, Ed turned and watched miserably.

The Colonel's care and precision was almost amusing. He was extremely careful, as though the slightest mistake would break Ed's automail. Stupid bastard. Obviously he'd missed the fact that Ed threw it around all the time, slamming it into surfaces, using it as a shield, and killing with it, and there was probably nothing Roy Mustang could do outside of drawing an array on it and blasting it into pieces that would even put a dent in it. Mustang's eyes flashed over his face briefly.

"What?"

"...You don't need to be so careful. It's not going to fall apart."

"Doesn't it hurt when someone messes with the wiring?"

"No! What do you think? They're just wires. If you stick your hand in my socket, yeah, it might hurt, but I can't even feel what you're doing right now. Damn, get a clue." Ed muttered, grumpily. "Would it hurt if I started chewing on your shoe or something? It's the same principle. I just wear this damn thing. It's not a part of me."

That wasn't entirely true, of course, and it was possible to hurt Ed by jamming fingers into the wrong place—the wiring was attached to his nerves, after all—but he didn't care. It was depressing to see Roy Mustang being so gentle, when he would have much rather had the man slap him across the face and leave him to stew in his own regrets for just a while longer. He was childish. He was being selfish. But the battle was over now, and no one was going to suffer for his weakness.

Instead, he watched Mustang's hair dangle into his eyes and the look of concentration on his face, staring at the man and suddenly entranced by how alive he was. Living, breathing, probably suffering here along with Ed even if he was an asshole, but alive... not like the thousands of corpses they had left strewn in pits and crumbled in trenches, with their empty glassy eyes and cold, clammy skin. Ed suddenly lurched forwards and grabbed the other man by the collar, yanking him down with a mad yearning that clouded his better judgment. Mustang relented—not that he really tried to resist—and Ed messily began tugging at the buttons on the man's white undershirt, sending three of them flying. One struck him in the eye, making Ed hiss and rear back momentarily, blinking painfully and rubbing at his eyelid.

Mustang was making a choking noise. At first Ed thought it was a cough, but on second glance, it was plain that the utter bastard was trying to force back a laugh. Ed scowled and swore, before wrenching open the shirt and pouncing. The fingers of his left hand splayed along pale, clean skin, feeling muscle and bone and scar all alike, and the warmth he sought. Roy Mustang was too warm, actually, maybe even a little feverish, but he was very alive.

It was nice to be touching something that wasn't dying. Ed buried his face in the crook of Mustang's shoulder and sprawled across him, breathing in his clean, warm scent and running his hands—both real and automail—down his Colonel's sides. It was frightening. Even if he couldn't feel the automail, he could sense that underneath him, Mustang was just as human as all those he had killed today. If he pressed too hard with his automail, he'd leave a nasty bruise, and it wouldn't be the first time, either. Strike him, and his ribs might crack. There was just a thin layer of flesh protecting Mustang's very human vulnerability, even though he usually acted like he was untouchable.

This isn't normal, Ed thought, as he ran his hands across the other. I should be thinking about what his skin feels like, or how warm he is... Instead...

He was thinking about how easy it would be for his automail, or alchemy, or whatever weapon he chose, to break Mustang to pieces, too.

Since when are humans so delicate? Do I even want my old limbs back, anyway? I'll end up just like them...

There were a few scars here and there across Mustang's body, none as noticeable as automail, but they only helped drive home Ed's belief—Mustang was just like the rest... So pathetically human...

If we fought, I could probably take him out, now. Even with his flames, I don't think he could defend himself. He might be more powerful than that stupid Drachman Alchemist, but the principle is the same...

"...Ed..."

Ed winced, and swiftly intercepted the conversation, not wanting to hear what Roy Mustang had to say. He was using that tone again—a touch concerned and a touch exasperated, obviously about ready to offer Ed some hopelessly clichéd platitude that wouldn't solve anything. Even worse, he had chosen to call Ed by name—not title. He always used real names right before spouting hopeless bullshit, and for once, Ed just wanted the truth.

"...If I... really went insane... I mean, completely lost my mind..." Ed said, carefully, "do you think you'd be able to stop me?"

He felt Mustang tense underneath him, before relaxing slightly. The change was subtle, and Ed knew he wouldn't have noticed if he was across the room instead of sprawled on top of the older man.

"In Ishbal... I was the one who stopped Kimbley when he lost his mind..."

"This isn't Ishbal. And I'm better than Kimbley ever was."

Mustang let out a low sigh. "Do you think I could?"

"No. I don't think so. You'd die like the rest of them," Ed murmured, burying his head even further into Roy's shoulder and thinking how paradoxical it was, that he was pushing closer to a man as he imagined all the horrible ways that he could die.

"...Then I have a question for you," Mustang murmured, after a moment. "...If there was no other way, would you take a bullet and die for me?"

Ed tensed this time, and straightened up, glaring down at the man. Mustang only smiled thinly at him, looking serene and discomfited all at once, although there was something uncomfortably cold in his dark gaze. For a moment, they were silent, before Ed scowled nastily and turned away, not meeting the others eyes.

"That's a stupid question. I'm being serious."

"Well, then? What's your answer?"

"You didn't answer mine, you bastard!"

"What do you want me to say?"

"Will you quit dodging around it and be honest for once?" Ed snapped, wondering if he was asking the impossible. Mustang narrowed his eyes in the darkness, before shrugging slightly.

"What do you really want to know, Fullmetal?"

"I told you," Ed hissed, clenching his automail fist and waving it threateningly. "Are you gonna answer, or am I gonna have to beat it out of you?"

"If you're asking whether or not I could kill you... You can figure the answer out for yourself, can't you? If the conditions were right—" If it wasn't raining, Ed surmised, "I'd have a complete advantage. If not, it would be more difficult. But if you're asking whether or not I would try to kill you if you went insane..."

Ed lowered his head. "That's not what I'm asking."

"It is. And I wouldn't."

Ed stared at him for a long time, before lowering his head and studying the pattern of the blankets underneath them, not wanting to look at Mustang and see that hopelessly concerned and fond look on the older man's face again. It was almost paternal.

"...Listen, Colonel. That's not reassuring. If you think that's going to make me feel better about it—"

"—I answered your question. Are you going to answer mine?"

Ed paused, and scowled. "No, you idiot! Your question isn't even fair. Just because you have sex with me doesn't mean that I'm going to take a bullet and fucking die for you!" Seeing that the Colonel only smirked in response, Ed threw himself on his side, facing away from the other man. They were still touching—Mustang's side was against his back—but Ed could pretend, for the moment, that there was distance between them.

A few minutes went by silently. Outside, soldiers passed, some coughing, others muttering softly. Finally, Ed spoke again in the darkness.

"You're a sick, fucked up old bastard. You get a thrill out of messing with other people's minds, don't you?"

Mustang took the verbal abuse in stride, like he did everything, and said nothing.

A few more soldiers passed by before Ed spoke again. "...You're going to get tired of me and throw me out of your tent someday."

"Could be sooner than you think." The other man grunted.

"It might be good for me. Try to kick me out before I catch the sick bastard disease from you. Not that I haven't already," Ed said, rolling over to face the other man once again. "You'd better not ever... reproduce. If your kids end up like you we're all doomed."

"Just try to relax, Ed. It won't kill you."

"I am relaxed!" Ed snapped, slamming his fist against the ground, before plopping down roughly and leaning his cheek against Mustang's shoulder. Again, he was fascinated by the other man—the feeling of his bones through his skin, his muscles along his bones, his chest as it rose and fell, the warmth and the feel of his skin sliding under the fingers of Ed's left hand. Really, it might not have mattered whether or not he found Mustang attractive—he just wanted someone nearby—but he did. There was something exceedingly attractive about Mustang now, even though he was too worn and gaunt looking for his own good. Ed couldn't complain. He knew he looked the same—hadn't eaten more than once in the past two days, he wasn't sleeping, and the stress was getting to him. It was the same for both of them.

Stress. It's just stress. Really... I'm not going insane... I'm just stressed out, and tired, and so is he...

Ed was tired, more than anything. He thought vaguely of asking the colonel half-a-dozen things—for sex, another argument, some kind of insight into what the battle plans were, and maybe a hard shot of alcohol from that other canteen he carried tucked in his jacket—but he knew they were both too tired to do anything right now.

Instead, he lingered in the darkness, eyes drooping shut. The Colonel folded his arms around Ed, and the younger man scowled—damn Colonel, doesn't keep his hands to himself—but as he turned he saw that bandage across the other's throat again. His scowl swiftly faded, and he relaxed against the older man, grumpily.

"...You're going to get kicked in the side with automail if we sleep this close to one another. I flail around a lot."

"I'm used to it by now."

"...You'd better be."

"There are worse things..."

"Like what?"

Mustang didn't respond, but Ed felt the man's arms tighten around him and knew an answer wasn't necessary.

He could hear rifle fire in the distance. Ed could relax even with the noise, but it bothered him that Mustang, so close to him in the darkness, kept on tensing uncomfortably whenever the rifles stopped and started up again. But it didn't really matter—exhaustion would overcome the older man eventually. Instead of worrying about it, Ed lingered and listened to Mustang's heartbeat, and his steady, slightly ragged breathing—all that mattered was that he was still alive and still Mustang, one of the few humans Ed had encountered today that wasn't going to crumble and die under his touch...

...For now.

Ed often found that he could never make guarantees for the future.