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The Crimson Countess

By Robin Z. Gaige

Action / Mystery

Chapter 1 ‘Playing Family’

“Well, this is it,” Hughes pronounced, putting a hand on his charge’s shoulder. “What do you think?”

Ed looked at the building they were standing right in front of, with the dispassion and disinterest of someone who couldn’t care less about the size and prestige of the place he was about to be spending the next few weeks in. Letting the silence drag on for a few seconds, he finally sighed in resignation and addressed the question.

“Honestly, I think this is a waste of time,” he started with a deadpan look. “If the parents are so afraid for their kids’ lives, they shouldn’t have enrolled them here in the first place.”

“That just gets to show what people are capable of doing just for some recognition.”

Ed grunted in agreement, feeling annoyed by the lack of common sense in certain people.

“Are you sure you’ll be fine alone in there?” Hughes suddenly asked him with a very serious expression. “Even if Major Armstrong and I were assigned as undercover backup, we still won’t be able to stay near you twenty-four seven.”

“Don’t worry, even without Al, I know how to take care of myself,” Ed reassured him with a shrug.

Hughes nodded at his answer. “Even so…” his glasses seemed to suddenly catch the sun’s reflection, hiding his eyes from view. “If you find yourself in trouble...”

Ed looked up at him in tense silence, waiting with bewilderment for the man to continue.

“You can always look at one of these and you’ll cheer right back up!” all tension was thrown out the window as Hughes suddenly grabbed him by the shoulder with one arm, pulling him closer so the both of them could see the photos that the man was holding with his other hand. “This one is from when little Elicia was asking Daddy for a piggyback at the park, and this is from when my beautiful wife-!”

Ed felt the vein in his temple pop.

“Keep your damn photos to yourself!” he yelled at the top of his lungs, expressing exasperation all over his face.

Completely unfazed by Ed’s temperamental reaction, Hughes only laughed it off and put his photos away.

“Your loss. But in all seriousness, try to be careful, Ed,” he warned him getting back to business mode. “The rumors might make it sound like a big hoax, but there is definitely something unsettling going on in this place. And if whoever is causing it is only targeting students, you are the most exposed to danger of the three of us.”

Ed frowned in response to that statement, but nodded in understanding. It might have felt to him like a time consuming sidetrack mission, but he was not about to underestimate its dangers.  

His only consolation of the whole deal was the opportunity this mission gave him to research the Institute’s library. Hughes had informed him of the possibility of finding books about other countries’ approaches in alchemy. If this country’s own methods weren’t the answer for what him and Al were looking for, then maybe other countries’ knowledge might have the answer.

This train of thoughts leaded him to remember his latest finding about the Philosopher's Stone and the horrible truth of the foundations for its creation. If he thought it in retrospective, all the events that unraveled after decoding Dr. Marco's research up to his own investigation at the fifth laboratory, which landed him in the hospital, were the reason he was here in the first place. What with the Fuhrer himself sneaking out to pay him a visit and ordering everyone involved to stop their inquiries about the stone.

“I’ve decided that all of you are people I can trust.”  

As much as being told that by the Fuhrer would be an honor to anybody else, he should have known that statement was only going to cause him more headaches. He couldn’t believe he had to change his plans so suddenly; and right after building enough courage to take a train to Dublith and visit his teacher no less.

“When the time comes, I have several tasks for you.”

That time seemed to have come faster than he had expected… right after signing out of the hospital, a lower rank soldier intercepted the group to deliver an envelope. It was documentation for an undercover mission where he had to pose as a new student on one of the most renowned schools in Central. There have been several cases of missing students that were found days later back in their rooms drained out of blood. The bodies didn’t present any sign of abuse for the exception of fang marks on their necks. Rumors had started going around about the cause of these deaths, all of them sounding like nothing more than fantasy stories about vampires.

If it wasn’t for the actual casualties, he would have thought all of it was just a well elaborated prank to spice things up on boring school days. But being as serious as it was, he ended up being assigned to investigate the occurrences under the direct orders of King Bradley. Somehow, he couldn't shake the feeling that this was a deliberate effort from the commander's part to distract them from their research. Yet, he didn't understand why. If he really trusted his soldiers as much as he implied, why would he go out of his way to stop them from getting involved in something he ordered them not to?

With that question still nagging his mind, he grabbed his suitcase from the floor and they continue their way to their destination. As inviting as the opened doors in front of them looked, Ed couldn’t stop the shiver caused by chills going down his spine. The shadows created by the setting sun over the campus gave the whole place an eerie appearance.

A sharp glance from the adult beside him, let him know that his involuntary display of weakness hadn’t gone unseen by the observant eyes of the intelligence agent.

“Are you cold?” Hughes asked him in a casual tone.

“I’m fine,” Ed answered shortly, not ready to admit he was feeling a bit nervous.

It was true that he had done missions a lot harder than this one, but none of them involved having to stay put indoors for so long. That… and he couldn’t remember the last time he had to socialize with people his own age on daily basis. Al didn’t count; he was his little brother, even if he was just one year younger, and being family put him in a totally different group. Winry was the same. He knew them both practically since they were born.

“You sure you won’t miss your red coat?” Hughes asked with a smile as they reached the doors.

Ed frowned at that. Being undercover meant not leading any clues to his true identity as a State Alchemist, which included his well known red coat and automail. He couldn’t do anything about his metal limbs but the red coat had to go. It was decided he had to use an entirely different set of clothes just in case. Something he grudgingly had to accept. It wasn’t like he was going to be able to stay in casual clothes for long anyway, seeing as this institute required its students to wear petty uniforms within its halls.  

“I’ll manage,” he shrugged pretending indifference.

“Will you?” Hughes whispered deviously as he grinned and leaned down to his height. “Little Ed is growing up so fast!” he said in mock affection while going for a hug.

“Who the hell are you calling little!” Ed spat in anger causing several eyes to turn their way on the reception. Eyes they both purposely ignored.

“What is uncle Maes going to do without his favorite nephew for so long?” Hughes let the last word drawl as he continued on with his charade, rubbing his cheek against Ed’s.

“Gha! What do you think you’re doing, you obsessive family man!?”

“Uh… May I help you?” a female voice caught their attention, noticing a woman standing right in front of them for the first time.

“Good evening, madam!,” Hughes answered, deciding to finally let go and straightening back up. “We are here for my nephew’s enrollment.”

“Oh, will this be his first day?” the young woman seemed to brighten up.

“That’s right!” Hughes affirmed patting Ed’s back a little too hard, making him growl in annoyance. “We have an appointment with the Principal for an interview before everything is set.”

“I see. Please wait here, Mr…”

“Maes Hughes,” he introduced himself. “And this is Edward Blecher.”

The receptionist nodded in acknowledgement.

“I’ll let her know you are here,” with a quick polite bow she went on her way, giving them time to check their surroundings.

Just the reception was enough to display the fanciness of the facility. Hughes let out a low whistle letting know how impressed he was by it. For his part, Ed stared at the place with wide eyes, feeling as if every single corner of the room was sparkling before him. The expensive look of every piece of furniture triggered a memory of when Ed had to inform Colonel Mustang about the sudden mission.

“Even if the Fuhrer was the one to assign you this mission, I’m still your direct superior; which means, any property damage you cause will directly affect my office,” Mustang informed him over the phone. “Please restrain yourself from breaking anything in there, Fullmetal. If you can’t keep your destructive tendencies in check, I’ll make sure to cut the money off of your research funding.”  

Ed suppressed another shiver as he took on a dejected look. At the time it didn’t seem like a big deal, but now he felt like he had gotten himself in some big trouble.

“Something on your mind?” inquired Hughes in total casualness.

“I just feel like I entered a ‘Look but don’t touch’ area,” Ed answered in a dull lower key tone of voice.

Hughes only laughed at his comment and patted him on the head.

“Well, just make sure to be extra careful for at least three days before you decide to break anything,” he whispered before pausing and pushing his glasses up his nose, making them glint. “The sake of my wallet depends on it.”

“Huh?” if look could kill…

“Oh, come on, Ed. You honestly didn’t expect Roy’s team not to bet, did you? Of course, I had to enter too.”

Ed’s irritation deflated instantly as he sighed and closed his eyes. It wasn’t worth his time to be mad about it now.  

“Fine, but if I make you win, you’ll have to give me half of that money.”

Hughes grinned. “You got it, kiddo.”

“Say, why am I the only one with the changed surname?” Ed whispered just loud enough for Hughes to hear.

“Well, I’m not the famous celebrity here,” Hughes said matter of factly. “And sometimes, the truth can help to make the lies stronger.”

Ed hummed in mild interest before letting the conversation drop. Right at that moment, the receptionist lady came back and asked them to follow her. She leaded them to the office farther down the hall, where she knocked the door and let them all in after being given permission by the room’s occupant.

The Principal was a scary lady, Ed decided. She seemed to carry herself with an air of greatness and coldness that Ed was sure she could freeze water with just a glare. And having his own share of experience in meeting strong women, he wasn’t about to put that theory to the test.

“Lysbeth Van Thorndike,” she presented herself raising her hand towards Hughes as a greeting gesture.

“Maes Hughes,” he answered shaking her offered hand.

“Please take a seat,” she gestured to a pair of chairs in front of her desk before proceeding to go behind it and occupy her own armchair. “I hope this last interview does not possess any kind of inconvenience for you. You see, I like to take a bit of my time in getting to know my students.”

“That’s very thoughtful of you, Miss Van Thorndike,” Hughes smiled politely. “I’m pretty sure they appreciate the gesture of being taken into account as individuals.”

She gave a small smiled at that. “Speaking of which…”

“Oh, right. This here is my nephew, Edward,” Hughes introduced him.

Noting he was suddenly the center of attention, Ed cut a yawn short with a flinch, before sitting upright.  

“Edward Blecher,” he said with a straight face and a polite node. “Nice to meet you.”

As the Principal made to look at him properly, Ed didn’t fail to notice how her eyes seemed to get a bit wider before it was gone. Suddenly feeling nervous, he tensed under her gaze and gulped.

“Um… is something the matter?” he asked tentatively, wondering if she had actually recognized who he was.

“I must apologize for staring. It’s just that, I found it quite unusual,” she explained. He must have confusion written all over his face since she elaborated. “Your eye color.”  

“Oh,” of everything he was expecting, that wasn’t it. “Yeah, it’s a family trait.”

“Not coming from your side of the family I assume?” Thorndike asked Hughes.

“That would be right. He is from my wife’s side of the family,” Hughes nodded in stride.

Seemed satisfied with the answer, the Principal took one of the folders resting on her desk and opened it wide to reveal its content.

“Now, I would like to talk about your trade,” she continued. “It says on your form application that you aspire to be an alchemy scholar. Do you have any particular reason why you chose our Institute for your education?”

“I was told your Institute’s library had a great variety of books regarding alchemy and similar studies of other countries,” Ed answered truthfully. “I thought it might be the best place to find an interesting topic for what would be my future research.”

“And you were told right,” Thorndike confirmed. “There’s no Institute in all Amestris that can bested us in our library resources. You’ll be able to find theories of Rasayana, books about the possibilities of nuclear transmutation, or even Xing’s Rentanjutsu on how to create medical potions like, say… the elixir of life.”

Ed tensed with wide eyes, unable to hide his shock at the last revelation; Hughes having a similar reaction. Thorndike just arched an eyebrow and observed them in silence.  

“The elixir of life? As in the liquefied counterpart of the Philosopher’s Stone?” Ed asked in what he hoped sounded as mild curiosity.  

“That would be right,” Thorndike nodded. “It’s true that most people find this mythical substance to be nothing more than old legends, but you would be surprised at the amount of researchers that take this particular topic as a  serious investigation.”

“Is there any student going for that topic?” Hughes asked with a guarded tone.

“Not that I know of," she answered with a shake of the head. "At least not within this Institute."

Ed visibly relaxed at that if just a bit. The elixir of life might not be exactly the same thing as the Philosopher's stone, but he would drink all the milk in the world if the process and ingredients of their making weren't almost if not completely the same ones.

"Do you have any particular topic in mind for your own research?" Thorndike asked Ed as she placed her elbows over the desk and intertwined her fingers in front of her chin.

"Well..." Ed made a pause as if thinking the answer for a bit. "I am... curious about biological alchemy. For medical purposes," he clarified as she showed the slightest sign of wonder. If he hadn't been paying close attention, he would have missed it.

"I see. I'm sure you'll be able to find what you need in our library."

"There's only one concern I'll like to address," Hughes suddenly said with a very serious expression.

The principal turned all her attention towards him, as a sign for him to continue.

"I'm sure the recent rumors about dying students inside the school grounds, has been causing you quite the fuss. Yet the Institute has manage to keep most of its pupils enrolled," Hughes went straight to the point. "Now, I don't doubt your capacities to keep the rest of your students safe, but I must admit, I'm a bit worried about Ed's safety. If you don't mind, I would like you to appease my uneasiness as you have surely done to other worried parents and guardians."

"I understand your concern, Mr. Hughes. And I'll be worried about your sanity if you weren't anxious about those rumors," Thorndike started with a very calm demeanor. "Yet I must emphasize that rumors are just that. Simple rumors created by the students themselves to scare their peers. What has truly happen to the deceased students had been kept from the press, out of respect for them and their families. We aren't talking about murders; these are cases of severe stress that led to depression, and... well, I’m sure you can figure out what could be the outcome after that.”

Her vague explanation was enough to make them understand what she was implying, causing a shocked reaction on both of them. She continued to explain.

“Our standards are high. If the students can't keep up with our lessons, we cannot assure their mental stability. Especially if they do not speak up," a deep frown started forming on Ed's face as she went on. Something about her explanation just didn't feel right. "Now, I'm sure Edward is a brilliant boy, if his form and resume are anything to go by," with this, she turned to him with a stern expression. "No doubt you'll be able to surpass our expectations, am I right?"

Ed's only answer was to stare back at her with determination. He wasn't about to bow down at her obvious challenge. After a few seconds, she looked pleased with his silent answer and smiled.

"Welcome aboard," Thorndike finally said extending her hand to him. As they shook hands, she continued speaking. "This concludes our interview, but if you're ever in need of anything, do not hesitate to come and ask."

"Thanks," was his short answer as the three of them stood up.

"I'll call someone to guide you to the dorms and help you with your accommodations,” Thorndike walked around her desk reaching for the door. “All students share a room with one or two roommates, so it will be better to get to know them and settle yourself in before nightfall."

With her attention turned to the now opened doorway, she missed the shared look between the two males. Even if worried, Hughes didn't look half as horrified as Ed felt. He didn't expect to have a shared room. He was determined to hide his metal limbs with gloves, and taking advantage of the uniform's modest style during his stay, but now, that plan was going down the drain really fast.

Hughes must have notice his aggravation since he placed a reassuring hand over Ed's shoulder and smiled at him as if to say that everything was going to be fine. Easy for him to think. It wasn't like he was the one who had to figure out a credible lie as the reason of his missing appendages.

'Okay, relax Edward. Just go for the Ishval war story,' he thought to himself. Yeah, right. Because he was somehow there during that time when his false documents said he was living in the West till recently. Was it him or had the temperature gone up all of a sudden? 'No, no, no. Concentrate. You still have time to figure it out.'

"Thomas, good timing. Come here. Would you mind helping your new peer around campus?"

“Not a problem, ma’am.”

And Ed's internal voice screamed like a little girl at the top of it's imaginary lungs. Even as he tried his best to show a calm and controlled demeanor, he couldn’t stop his right eyebrow from twitching in a nervous tick.

“Well, that’s the cue for me to be on my way,” Hughes suddenly said raising his palm at shoulder level.

‘Traitor!’ Ed shouted in his head as he sent a glare his way.  

“I thank you for taking care of my dear nephew,” with a wide smile, Hughes proceeded to shake Thorndike’s hand a bit more euphoric than what would be normal, causing them all to stare a bit dumbfounded.

As he let go of her hand, he turned to look at his charge and squatted down right in front of him.

“Good luck, Ed,” Hughes said, placing a hand on Ed’s head and rubbing his hair affectionately.

By then, Ed was finding it hard to control his patience, since his irritation was steadily going up to dangerous levels.

“Just remember to behave and restrain yourself from any kind of showy conduct, okay?” Hughes said with a meaningful gaze while pressing his hands together as in prayer.

“I know,” Ed answer with grinded teeth, understanding the hidden meaning behind Hughes’ apparent sign of pleading.

“Well, I gotta go, kiddo! See you in the weekend!” he said producing something from his jacket and giving it to Ed, before reaching the exit. “And don’t worry about your wife. I’ll take good care of her while you’re gone!”

That’s when Ed noticed the picture in his hand. Winry was shown smiling at the camera, making him blush furiously.

“Stop with the ‘wife’ comments!” Ed yelled after the man.

And with that, the man was gone and off the building. Ed sighed in bittersweet relief.

“So, you’re the new student?”

The voice behind him, leaded him back to his current situation. He turned around to find who he assumed to be Thomas standing right beside him, immediately noticing he had to tilt his head a bit upwards to meet his eyes. He reassured himself that Thomas surely was a senior, because there was no way in hell, they were the same age when this guy was clearly taller.

“His name is Edward Blecher,” the Principal introduced him. “Please guide him to the dorms. Here’s the documentation of the facilities’ locations, management manual, and scholar schedules,” she said that last giving Ed a yellow folder filled with papers. He barely had a chance to murmur a thanks, before she closed the door to her office behind her.

“Nice to meet you, Blecher. You can call me Thomas,” the teenager said without missing a beat.

“Just Ed is fine,” Ed corrected while nodding his understanding of the other boy’s name.

With the introductions taken cared of, they started their way to Ed’s temporary housing.

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